We all have our crosses to climb

Yesterday I reported hearing that the New York Times was thinking about putting its editorial behind a paywall again. Today James Warren gives substance to the rumors:

Here’s a story the newspaper industry’s upper echelon apparently kept from its anxious newsrooms: A discreet Thursday meeting in Chicago about their future.

“Models to Monetize Content” is the subject of a gathering at a hotel which is actually located in drab and sterile suburban Rosemont, Illinois; slabs of concrete, exhibition halls and mostly chain restaurants, whose prime reason for being is O’Hare International Airport. It’s perfect for quickie, in-and-out conclaves.

There’s no mention on its website but the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, has assembled top executives of the New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Lee Enterprises and Freedom Communication Inc., among more than two dozen in all. A longtime industry chum, consultant Barbara Cohen, “will facilitate the meeting.”

I can see the headline already:  Newspaper Bigs Form Trust To Set Content Prices.

Just kidding.

We do need to be serious here. The Situation is dire. Humpty Dumpty is reaching terminal velocity.

But don’t bother wishing the king’s horses and men luck with the fix. They can’t do it. No newspaper trade group, no collection of top newspaper executives, will come up with a creative solution to problems that have already earned Top Rank status in the innovators dilemma casebook. The best these execs can do is make Humpty’s fall a drop into cyberspace. They have to make Humpty Net-native. They can’t do that just with better-and-better websites, or with “monetization” schemes such as “micropayments” or other scarcity plays with a net-ish gloss.

As disruptive technologies go, it’s hard to beat the Interent. The Net didn’t just push  Humpty off the wall. It blew up that wall and the whole world on which both sat. In that wall’s place is a wide-open space where abundance is not only the prevailing condition, but a severly reproductive one that’s especially suited to interesting “content.” As Kevin Kelly aptly puts it, The internet is a copy machine. One measure of content’s worth is how much it gets copied and quoted. How the hell do you monetize that?

In a New Yorker piece this week, Bill Keller, the Times‘ Executive Editor, said, “There’s a crying demand for what we do and, sadly, a diminishing supply of it. How we get the demand to pay for the supply is the existential question of newspapers in general and the Times in particular.” He’s right in all but one respect: that first person plural we. Unless he’s referring to a population of sufficient generality to include readers. Or, more importantly, hackers. Geeks bearing gifts.

As it happens, we (the geeks) have one. It’s called EmanciPay. It hands the pricing gun over to the customers (readers in this case) and then makes it easy for them to pay as much as they like, however they like, on their terms. Or at least to start with that full set of options. Whatever readers decide to pay, the sum of it won’t be $0, which is what readers are paying now. (Online, at least, in nearly all cases.)


Peter Kafka reports this from the D7 conference today (over a Wall Street Journal AllThingsDigital blog):

Time for some polls! No surprise: People like to read newspapers online. Also no surprise: But people don’t pay for it. Somewhat of a surprise: People say that they are willing to pay for some kind of news.

My boldface.

I conduct similar audience polls often, though my subject is usually public radio. “How many people here listen to public radio?” Nearly all hands go up. “How many of you pay for it?” About 10% stay up. “How many would pay for it if it were real easy?” More hands go up. “How many would pay if stations would stopped begging for money with fund drives?”  Many more hands go up, enthusiastically.

So the market is there. The question is how to tap it.

At ProjectVRM we propose tapping it from the customers’ side: for newspapers, from the readers side. We also propose doing it one way for all readers and all newspapers, rather than X different ways for X different papers, each designed by each paper for their own readers. In that direction lies a field of silos, all with their own scarcities, their own frictions, their own lock-ins. We need one way to do this for the same reason we need one way to do email.

Remember back when AOL, Prodigy, Lotus Notes, MCIMail and the rest all had their own ways of making you correspond? That’s what we’ll get if we leave content monetization up to the papers alone. They’ll all have their own ways of locking you in, just like retailers all have their own “loyalty” programs, each with their own cards, their own barcodes for you, their own reward systems, their own special ways of inconveniencing you for their own exclusive benefit.

EmanciPay will be simple and straightforward. It will make it easy for you to pay what you want (which may be what the papers what you to pay … or more … or less), and to do it on your terms and not just theirs. This doesn’t mean that the papers can’t have terms of their own. Maybe they have a suggested price, or a minimum they’re willing to accept. Whatever they come up with, however, will be informed by interaction out in the open marketplace, rather than their own private ones, where they make all the rules.

Think of EmanciPay as a way to unburden sellers of the need to keep trying to control markets that are beyond their control anyway. Think of it as a way that “free market”  can mean more than “your choice of captor.” Think of it as a way that “customer relationships” can be worthy of the label because both sides are carrying their ends of the relationship burden — rather than the sellers’ side carrying the whole thing (as CRM systems do today).

EmanciPay is an open source project. When it rolls out, it will be free and open to anybody.

Want to help? Let me know. (firstname at lastname dot com) I’m serious.

The only problem is that development work on EmanciPay is just getting started. (I haven’t wanted to publicize it, because I wanted it to be ready to go — or at least to vet — first.)  But that’s also an opportunity.

What matters for the papers is that there’s at least one answer to their challenge out there. And it’s free for the making.

Cross-posted here.

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  1. John Stodder’s avatar


    In your concept, at what point would the reader pay for the article? Would this be like the release of “In Rainbows,” in which you had to pay something, even if it was a trivial amount, for the privilege of downloading the new Radiohead album? So that the reader would have to decide how much to pay before the article could be read? Or would the payment occur after reading the article, like a tip?

  2. Rich Pearson’s avatar

    Doc – very interested in your thoughts on fairsyndication.org as it exists to answer your point of “The internet is a copy machine. One measure of content’s worth is how much it gets copied and quoted. How the hell do you monetize that?”

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    John, EmanciPay would be nothing like the Radiohead example.

    The choice would be up to the reader. That’s where we’re starting. They could pay whatever they want for any item, or for any subscription period. They could note what they like and pay later. All those and more choices should be available.

    One key is not to start with the idea that the seller has to charge anything. Of course they’re free to do that. But the idea here is to recognize that: a) it’s to the papers’ advantage that much of their content is worth more if it comes free; and b) it’s to everybody’s advantage if readers are well equipped to become customers in a limitless variety of ways that are under the readers’ control.

    Another key is to recognize that there is a broad class of digital goods — media — that are available for free but worth more than $0. How much more? Well, the sell side could make some numbers up and suggest paying that much. This is pretty much what public broadcasting has done for the duration. But only about 10% actually pay. How much higher would that percentage be if we could make paying easy? And accounting easy as well.

    I could go on, but need to hit the sack. Hope this much helps.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Rich, I think FairSyndication.org‘s motives are good ones, but I don’t think they can achieve their aims on their own. Same goes for Attributor, iCopyright and other efforts along the same lines.

    I do think EmanciPay could help a great deal, however. Part of EmanciPay will be the ability of the buyer to stipulate terms, if he or she wishes, for allocating the money spent on purchase. So, for example, one could say with a payment that it’s for the whole value chain of a given story. If FairSyndication (or anybody) comes up with standard and machine/lawyer/human-readable ways of making things work on the funds dispersal side, we’d be all for it.

  5. ross’s avatar

    How about the cable/satellite model ?

    I choose to spend $59 per month. I watch everything I want to with that subscription. It covers all the channels. I can control how much I spend in advance. It’s up to the cable/satellite provider to divy up my money.

    I might extract more than the next subscriber or less in terms of consumption. It’s the aggregate that matters.

    It’s here’s $20. Spread it around as you like. It’s my contribution to pay to read. You figure it out.

    It’s not about value per article/video/podcast/post, it’s about how much am I willing to pay per month to watch the internet.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    The Net isn’t TV. It’s a way of working around the cable/satellite model.

    I’ve canceled TV at both our houses and only have Internet. All I pay for the Net goes to the cable company. Nothing goes to the “channels.” Not much to complain about there. But not a way to address a need to pay more than $0 for free stuff if I feel like it. To me that’s the challenge.

    We’re talking about a new model here. Not leveraging an old one.

  7. Solitude’s avatar

    No point in this at all.

    You can not copyright news.

    Only your wording.

    Put up any pay wall you want and I (or anyone else) who reads your content can dissect it, add our own additional information if we want, and regurgitate it out into the web.

    If I don’t use your wording you can’t do jack about it. Simple information isn’t copyright-able.

    Pay walls aren’t going anywhere. Not even with a cutesy name. Not even for very long with niche information.

  8. Rich Pearson’s avatar

    Thanks Doc – The FairSyndication initiative is based on Attributor’s crawling and the goal is to standardize/quantify the revenue sharing parameters.

    From what you’ve shared, EmanciPay looks interesting and consistent with FairSyndication which is also free to use.

    Where I (and I think others) struggle is the behavioral change in which consumers must pay for news online. For certain publishers, I have no doubt it can pay off, but I’m skeptical that this is a long list.

    FairSyndication goals are take existing advertising infrastructure to ensure that the original creator gets paid whenever their work is reused commerical. The ad networks get the same amount of money – the reusing site is the only one who takes a “hit”. It’s kind-of like ad-supported micropayments.

    btw, I totally agree that the Net is not TV. That thinking will not get us far

  9. ross’s avatar

    True the net is not TV

    But what about the concept of a person setting aside a sum of money to go to original creators and maybe a slice for aggregators etc who add value along the way ?

    Radio uses this model for artists to get their cut.

    The net is probably too far out of the gate for such a model, I guess a personal usage tracker could let one decide and then route a monthly amount dividied up to the various creators.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar


    EmanciPay will do exactly what you describe, if the user wants it to.

    For many decades, over-the-air radio (in the U.S.) has only compensated composers, through payments to BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. Over-the-Net radio stations, by terms outlined through the DMCA and now set by the Copyright Royalty Board, are required to pay the RIAA through SoundExchange for artists (actually, their labels — the copyright holders) on a per-listener, per-recording basis).

    The Net is not too far out of the gate for any model. That’s why we’re doing both ListenLog (a personal usage tracker — for the user himself or herself) and EmanciPay (a way for users to decide what to pay, to whom, and how — any way they like).

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    John, when the reader pays is up to the reader. So is how.

    We need to make this thing open and flexible enough to allow readers (and listeners, and viewers, in the cases of audio and video content) and the marketplace to decide for themselves.

    It is essential that we discover what works for the marketplace. That can’t be done if the marketplace remains under the control of the sellers alone, and in many different ways. (And, if they all collude for one way, that risks antitrust scrutiny.)

  12. Hal’s avatar

    I commented at James Warren’s post, but it looks like it may be appropriate here as well.

    Newspapers aren’t dying. Advertising is dying. It’s just taking newspapers with it.

    Newspapers can try charging readers for content. But the readers have never been the main way newspapers have been funded — advertisers are. So, yes, the net is killing the revenue stream, but it’s because the net provides the metrics needed to show advertising doesn’t work at generating sales. The problem is not, and never has been, “freeloading” readers or aggregators.

    Has anyone ever seen the subscription rates for non-advertiser-supported industry-specific newsletters? $200, $300, $500 a year is not uncommon.

    Read Bob Garfield’s “Chaos Scenario” piece in Advertising Age. This is not a newspaper-specific problem.

  13. john cherrington’s avatar

    I think the net is providing another forum for advertisers and unfortunately it is having an inverse effect on newapaper advertising. Obviously as the next generation of computer users come along and the advent of television combined with internet access arrives fully (whit is starting to happen with the latest gaming machines which have wireless networking capability) then more and more people will be using the internet for their news reports. As a consequence advertisers will have to adopt a different strategy to reach their audience.

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