Newspapers are struggling to make ends meet online. The answer is not to give content away but to sell it – for peanuts
Ever since Rupert Murdoch announced plans to put his digital titles behind a paywall, claiming the "free" web was dead, the rest of the media have either pooh-poohed his proposals, or nervously wondered if they should do likewise.
A great deal of online content is profitably charged for – notably music and porn – but news struggles. With the exception of some high-value material from publications like the Wall Street Journal, news doesn't seem able to turn a buck. Experiments in charging have largely failed – and the advertising-subsidised model has reigned supreme.
However, with recession, advertising revenues, always marginal at best, have dried up. Publishers are in a nightmarish situation; they know the print side of their business is struggling, they know punters want their news online, but they can't see how to make it pay. In desperation others may follow Murdoch's retreat behind the paywall. Not good news for news addicts. It isn't so much the money, it's the usernames, passwords, subscriptions ... Actually, it is the money. But publishers need a profit. Information might want to be free – but food and housing isn't. 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.
The basic concept of micropayments is that you charge at a price that doesn't deter consumers at all, but will aggregate enough profit, via mass sales, to sustain a business. Classical micropayment theory (yes, there is a classical and neo theory – probably a superstring version too) states that payments should be of the order of 1/1000 of a US cent. A cent would be the minimum now. Fans claim this is beneath the mental threshold at which resistance to a purchase sets in. Critics divide into two camps – those who feel it's a dumb idea, and those who feel it's evil. Dumb because similar schemes have failed in the past. Evil because it swipes your money under the radar, and an effective scheme could easily expand to diminish the entire web by fencing off vast quantities of content. The dumb argument can be countered – we can implement a scheme today that beats previous implementations hands down – I'll explain how in a moment. I pretty much accept the evil argument, but it's the lesser of several evils – the main one being that journalism goes down the pan unless we find a way to fund mainstream media online.
So, how could it work? Step forward Google. Many of you will be familiar with Google Ads – perhaps not with how the system works. Basically, you sign up, create a bundle of code using their site tools, wrap it into your own pages and presto, ads appear, and when your visitors click on those ads, you get paid. Not immediately. Payments – tiny payments – are tracked and added up. To reduce payment transaction costs, you're paid one sum, once a month. The code has unique identifiers, the code is smart enough to tell Google to look at your pages, providing content-targeted ads. The database in the background keeps track. You just watch the money roll in. The transfer potential of this technology to a micropayments scenario is clear: individuals would sign up with Google, deposit funds. They'd have a unique ID attached to them at that point – an encrypted cookie stored on whichever PC they happen to log in with. When they visit a site with GoogleDosh embedded they're allowed in, a fraction of a penny is switched to the content provider's account for every item they read – if visitors aren't GoogleDosh members, they're re-routed, perhaps, to a précis, or a sign-up form, or even to a limited trial. The key difference from other micropayment schemes is scale – and that's what beats individual site subscriptions too – sign up with one scheme, and you get access to thousands of sites. That's my theory, at least. It's technically simple – an easy step if publishers accept a single standard, and the success of Google Ads suggests they will. Publishers win, consumers win long-term by supporting content providers, and in the short term, if good sense among sellers prevails, they get a bargain: spending pennies a day for all the content they need. Not just news of course – anything could be paid for in the same way.
Googlephobics will no doubt hold their hands up in horror. Tough. This needs a big player – there are two: Google and Microsoft. Of the two, Google already has the infrastructure and the reputation for managing situations like this. Not only that, but they're touted as news content's No 1 enemy, via GoogleNews. They "owe" the press one. Yes, there are issues. Privacy. Exclusion, perhaps. And further entrenching a near-monopoly position. But these can be countered, technically and economically – and nothing stops parallel schemes running, once the concept is established. The fact is that in the boom years micropayments looked like a lot of fuss, and a leap into the unknown. I get the impression publishers' pride got in the way of being asked to sell for pennies. But now the boom is over, micropayments aren't an option – they may be the only way forward.