My favorite video from the 2008 presidential campaign did not come from a network or cable broadcast or a Web news site. It came from YouTube and was a musical ditty called "Hockey Mama for Obama" — a spoof on Sarah Palin sung to the tune of "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina." Don’t speak for me, Sarah Palin, the chorus went. "My son plays hockey and I’m his mama/But I am voting Barack Obama."
YouTube displays the number of views of a video. When I first saw Mama for Obama, views were in the tens of thousands. The next time I clicked, they were in the high six figures. Within a few days the views had exceeded 1 million. The count slowed after the Nov. 4 election, but as of this writing it’s at almost 1.5 million.
The video was an amateur production — two people in their living room. But as it turned out, the piano accompanist and the singer were professional musicians. They were a cut above, in other words. The more I clicked (I probably watched the thing 30 times) and linked (to family, friends and email lists), the more it occurred to me how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t pay them for giving me and my circle so much enjoyment. As a content professional myself, I like to pay for the good stuff, partly in hope that pay-to-play karma will somehow infiltrate written material on the Web.
The first issue, of course, was the right sum. I may want to go beyond free, but at a buck a pop like iTunes, I’d run out of money pretty fast.
Then it hit me: A penny a click.
At first it sounds absurd. Who’s going to make money off pennies? Well, do the math. A million clicks is $10,000 — not a bad payday for one video taking a few hours’ work (in the case of Mama for Obama). Granted, not much content generates that much traffic, even on a newspaper or broadcast site. But even if you drop down to 100,000 clicks, you’re at a grand, and 10,000 clicks, a perfectly attainable number for a lot of YouTubers and bloggers (to say nothing of a Seattle Times article), is $100. It may not get you to Vegas, but would you turn it down?
Running the notion of micro-payments by friends and associates over the years has produced the universal eyeball-roll. The primary objection is: Yer dreamin’ if you think anyone will pay anything just to click. This was of course the argument against charging for music. It took a heroic effort by Steve Jobs and Apple to break the logjam and determine the "sweet spot" of a dollar a song. (Just recently pricing became more flexible , and it will continue to do so. But $1 a song was the perfect entry point.)
In its favor, a penny a click competes pretty well with free. If you blind-click on a link and it’s a turkey, well, you’re only out a centavo. You could do that 100 times a day and not really feel it. But it’s doubtful you would do it 100 times a day. With an actual price tag attached (even a tiny one), dog meat will not get forwarded to you. It will not get widely linked. It won’t make any money and will remain in obscurity as the market dictates. A penny a click would, in fact, help mitigate the info glut by strengthening referrals and discouraging spammers.
Granted, Hockey Mama for Obama was entertainment, not newspaper coverage. Would anyone pay to read actual journalism? Well, yeah. They do now in print, after all. In many cases the line between journalism and entertainment is pretty thin (witness many youth getting their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), as maybe it ought to be. Second, the Web’s powerful referral system trumps any psychological barrier to a mere penny. Think of the links a Paul Krugman or Frank Rich column generate. Or any really good newspaper story. The run-of-the-mill stuff might go unlinked, but may not be worth paying for anyway.
(One argument that often pops up is that public-service journalism would go begging in a pay-to-play environment. I don’t think that’s true. Good public-service journalism, as Bill Moyers has shown, does just fine in the news cloud.)
In any case, a lot of stuff would remain free. No one is saying all content would have to charge. Free could play a loss-leader role as well: Mama for Obama could start off free, then begin charging once the locust storm hit.
A penny a click is not enough to pay the bills of a typical print newspaper operation. But a site like Huffington Post, done locally and aggregating as well as originating content, could be viable with a typical (small) Web staff and operation. A popular local blog can generate 10,000 views a day. That’s $3,000 a month — again, not high-roller money, but something to work with.
Moreover, a penny a click is just the ice-breaker. It’s hopefully a way of justifying an infrastructure to support Web commerce. Eventually some stuff could charge more and some less. But we have to get the ball rolling. Online advertising, as is becoming starkly apparent, is not going to carry the day.
When you look at what you pay for print, a penny a click is competitive if not cheaper. My Times subscriptions (Seattle and New York ), added to my magazine subs, could get me through a couple hundred clicks a day no problem. That’s not even counting the absurd amount I pay for cable news (I don’t watch much else on TV), which I TiVo to avoid the commercials. As it is, I’m watching more video (Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Netflix "instant play" movies) online than on television.
Admittedly, where all this gets sticky (or stickier) is in the mechanics. How can micro-commerce be tracked? How can payment be built into the sprawling, disjointed and chaotic infrastructure of the Web? Who will collect and disburse? How many ways can a penny be sliced and still be rewarding financially?
The point of first departure has to be the banking industry. I admit to being puzzled by its reluctance to do anything to promote Web micro-commerce, given the billions of dollars at stake (I know of startups who have tried to persuade banks re micro-payments, without success). Used to taking a sliver of every credit card transaction, banks should understand the dynamic of critical mass on the Web.
To help get banks off the dime, the folks at Google should be promoting micro-commerce. By dint of their search monopoly, they know more about online content that any other company. They’ve made billions from Web advertising by charging tiny amounts to millions of customers. Why not do the same by distributing tiny amounts (after taking a minuscule cut)? If Google took even a hundredth of a percent from a micro-transaction, it could still pull in sizable revenue. Eric Schmidt could be the Steve Jobs of the digital word.
(I’m aware of Schmidt’s poor-mouthing. Maybe he’s not the guy, but someone over at the Googleplex could be. Besides, Schmidt is too smart not to see this opportunity, and I don’t believe his public disavowals reflect his own thinking, or what’s really going on at Google.)
Apple obviously knows this business through iTunes and the iPhone. I don’t see its leverage point (like Google has), but the iPhone or a notebook iTouch ; could be key. Cell service providers do nothing but micro-commerce (just check your bill). Amazon with its Kindle has huge incentives when you throw in its synergy with the print business. The links at the end of this piece contain some other creative thinking along these lines.
Perhaps no one has stepped forward because there’s been no crying need. Newspapers and other content providers just haven’t been hurting enough. But with a new Depression staring us in the face, with newspapers and other print media doomed to bankruptcy or extinction, and with an obvious demand for content monetization on the Web, it’s time for some visionary to step forward and take a chance. What, given the current meltdown, have they got to lose? And if they succeed, it will be like Pennies from Heaven.
Some relevant links:
Boston Phoenix: "Count several papers going online only in ‘09."
TechCrunch: Apple, others moving on micropayments
New York Times: iTunes for News
Eric Schmidt, Google : "The good news is we could purchase them. We have the cash. But I don’t think our purchasing a newspaper would solve the business problems."
Dan Froomkin: What Google Can Do
Saving The New York Times online: “I just hope there’s a business model when we get there.”
Slate: How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web