The discussion over how to fund newspapers continues, with Michael Kinsley weighing in today on the op-ed pages of The New York Times. Based on the failure at Slate (ancient by Internet time standards), Kinsley argues you can’t charge “by the slice” for content. I usually enjoy Kinsley’s observations for their wit and insight, but this time he missed the mark, showing little cognizance of tech and market advances since his Slate experience). Ironically, his piece came on the same day as coverage of Amazon’s new Kindle 2.0 device, which happens to charge by the slice. Michael, perhaps you could sit down with Jeff Bezos and compare business plans.
Kinsley’s piece apparently is in reaction to Walter Isaacson’s TIME endorsement of “micro-payments” for news content. (By the way, how can The New York Times or Kinsley for that matter justify not linking to a piece explicitly referred to in Kinsley’s article? I mean, just what is going on here? Arrogance? It has to be intentional, coming at a time when The Times is getting lots of attention for Web innovation.) Many other new contributions to the debate we raised here a month ago ago (really a renewal of the longstanding debate over micro-payments) are surfacing: Glenn Fleishman at Publicola has an insightful analysis of advertising realities on the Web, and Clark Humphrey comments on Glenn’s piece (neither are about micro-payments per se). Meanwhile, the most (in my opinion) thoughtful and comprehensive look comes from Steven Brill:
“All online articles will cost 10 cents each to read in full, with simple, one-step purchases powered by an iTunes-like Journalism infrastructure. (Apple, which turned my children from music pirates to music micro-buyers, could become a joint-venture participant, but that is hardly the only way to create a convenient payment engine.)”
I don’t think Brill’s multi-tiered system (he also supports a “one-day pass” for 40 cents, a month-long pass for $7.50 and annual fee of $55) is the right answer. I still back a penny a click, given the dynamics of Web commerce and critical mass. Once you start slicing and dicing, you confuse consumers. And people don’t want to pay even a day in advance for something they aren’t sure they’ll want to buy (compare RealNetworks’ music success with Apple’s). If Apple had charged $4 for a Beatles song, $1.50 for a Starlight Mints number and 3 cents for an Eagles tune, iTunes would have kept Napster in business for years. (Brill even calls for 5 cents to forward an article. That’s just bone-headed; forwarding should be free. Let recipients decide whether they want to read the article and pay for it themselves.)
A couple of thoughts:
First, can we officially retire the term “micro-payments”? It’s been stigmatized beyond redemption. And there are so many different types that the term has lost all meaning. We can refer to pay-as-you-go systems by their specific form; e.g., subscription-based, or pay-per-view, or whatever. I prefer “penny a click.” KISS.
Second, no one seems to bring up content providers’ biggest asset: Archives. Recall that The New York Times used to charge for archived articles. It gave up because charging was such a huge disincentive versus “free.” But its mistake was charging too much: $1.50 per piece if memory serves. Not to overstate it, but a penny would prove no barrier to archival retrieval and over time represent a healthy revenue source, for any content provider, not just The Times.
However many permutations the discussion involves, at least it’s happening. And that’s good. We need to get people to think of content as something to be paid for. The exact iteration will work itself out. I vividly remember early discussions over video on the Web. Why wasn’t it happening? What would it take for someone to provide easy ways of posting all those home/hobbyist videos they were taking? The arguments back then — that it was too time-consuming, storage was too expensive, broadband was not fast enough — all disappeared virtually overnight with YouTube, because storage became cheap and broadband got faster (and more ubiquitous). All we need are a couple of technological advances to make a penny a click easy and transparent, and we’re off and rolling toward a transaction economy for the Web.