/ 10 October 2009

The reluctant raptured

Globally the Four Horsemen are running rampant in the newsroom. Advertising, readership and revenues are plummeting. They need a saviour: a deep-pocketed Jesus with a plan to rapture them from the physical to a new state of ethereal being. Enter Google.

Google has a plan and the means.

A little short on the religious fervour, but that’s made up by its disciples, including Frank Fisher with his article in The Guardian, ”Saving journalism, a farthing at a time” (May 18). ”Information might want to be free — but food and housing isn’t,” writes Fisher. ”So is there another way? Some model that brings in more than ­advertising, but doesn’t exclude casual visitors, either by cost or inconvenience?

”Well yes — an idea that won’t go away: micropayments.”

Fisher’s argument is that a benevolent Daddy could offer a service for a critical mass of news organisations. If you get enough, it becomes attractive for readers to pay to access news. Perhaps only pay a few cents for an article, but at the end of the month they’ll have accrued enough content debt to warrant a credit card transaction.

Serendipitously, Google responded to a ”Request for Information” from the Newspaper Association of America, stating its micropayment intentions.

”When it comes to a paid-content model, there are two main challenges,” states Google. ”First, the content must offer value to users. Only content creators can address this. The second is to create a simple payment model that is painless for users. Google has experience not only with our e-commerce products; we have successfully built consumer products used by millions around the world. We can use this expertise to help create a successful e-commerce platform for publishers.”

Rapture me, Google, for I have seen the light!

Clearly Google is the saviour. Except for a few minor points. Like the way newspaper economics work. And that pesky internet thingy. And the obligation to deliver news to everyone — sinners and saints alike.

Newspaper Economics 101: We don’t make money from subscribers. The cover price covers the print and distribution bill. The more readers you have, the higher your print and distribution costs — it’s an obvious equation. Advertising pays for the reporting, which is why there’s a relationship between advertising and how much news a paper carries. On the web, the distribution costs are minimal compared with print and the printing costs nonexistent. Now we’re proposing to charge the subscribers for content that should be covered by advertising.

I’m not saying that an economic model that’s been evolved over hundreds of years is better than something Google pulled out of its ”World Domination” dossier, but the internet is littered with failed businesses that thought they could spurn conventional wisdom.

Then there’s the internet itself. It’s got this magical ability to offer what you’re looking for from a lot of sources. Charging for content for news sites requires everyone to get on board. If the Mail & Guardian, News24 and IOL all went the Google way, it would take just one upstart to keep it free and take all our readers. You can offer all the value you like for a price; the majority will take the free option.

Finally, micropayments require credit cards. In South Africa I don’t see that many people flashing plastic. I’ll coin the term quickly before someone beats me to it: ”News apartheid”. (The ”Digital Divide” has already been taken, I’m afraid.)

Enter Marshall van Alstyne, a research scholar at MIT. In a New York Times column he’s quoted: ”Putting micropayments on news is like putting tollbooths on an open ocean. Internet users, awash in a sea of information, will avoid new barriers by navigating around them. And, frankly, the interests of a free society are rarely served by building barriers between the ­people and their news.”

Look it up, for free, on the New York Times site. Or on any of the other 187 websites that (according to Google) have repeated his quotes. Meanwhile, I need to get repenting: I’ve used Google’s name in vain, my faith is wavering and there’s a rapture around the corner.

Jason Norwood-Young is M&G Online’s technical manager


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