Paying for the press, and for the rest of the Net

February 16, 2009

The newspaper industry’s collapse isn’t like some careful demolition of an old apartment block that crumples neatly into dust and leaves next-door buildings without a scratch. No, for all the abuse newspapers get, they still do most of the country’s journalism, and their demise is having vast civic consequence.

A Project for Excellence in Journalism study released last week found the number of U.S. papers covering Congress down by two-thirds since the 1980s, with those claiming some presence in Washington off by half. In 2001 mainstream papers had 21 full-time Pentagon reporters; now, while the military fights two wars, there are 12.

With the country shuddering from catastrophic failures by major institutions of business and government, it’s worth asking how much pain might have been averted if the press had been bolder, stronger, more skeptical, better staffed, more confident of its own value, surer of its own future.

Nobody knows what’ll happen to news if daily newspapers downsize into civic impotence, like the hero in the ‘50s sci-fi movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man” who winds up fleeing beasties he once squished underfoot, or disappear altogether. True, other sources exist – TV stations, trade publications, alternative weeklies, citizen initiatives, blogs. But that abundance is deceptive: Metro dailies are the first link in the news food chain. To switch metaphors, if you drill down into those other sources, more often than not you’ll find the informational veins they tap were opened by daily papers.

So we all have a stake in the debate about how to keep newspapers from a financial ruin that seems more certain by the day.

The causes seem clear. Advertisers abandoned papers for cheaper, targeted online venues that do nothing but sell cars or rent apartments. Plus, although newspaper sites are popular among readers, Internet ad rates are nothing like the princely sums newspapers commanded as print monopolies — and the giant search engines, Google and Yahoo, get the first helpings of online revenues. Publishers get the scraps.

If advertisers won’t pay the overhead, why not charge readers? If not as subscribers, then via a “per-drink” or micro-charge for each item they download, which would be totaled into a monthly bill, like cellphone or cable? Micro-billing has been discussed for years but now, with casualties mounting, Walter Isaacson, a heavyweight who once ran CNN, has proposed it in a Time magazine cover story that has sparked huge interest.

The counter-arguments are many: Micro-billing has never worked. People won’t pay. The Internet is porous, the stories will show up elsewhere anyway. Numerous free sites offer much the same coverage. With fewer readers, ad revenues will fall. Pay walls will gum up the exuberant hypertext linking and file sharing that epitomize Web culture.

I have praised micro-billing in the past as a clean, logical, market-based solution, which credits as well as debits: Nonprofessionals who post things that other people link to could be “paid” too – if only through offsets against their bills. The line between news consumer and news producer would be gone.

I’m no longer sure. The problem is, reading news isn’t like buying chewing gum. It’s an act of vital social participation that should be encouraged, not penalized by levying a fee on every download.

A prepaid model, such as subscriptions, rewards reading — the more you read, the less each item costs. That’s good. Yet, though perfect for a tiny number of essential sites, subscriptions won’t accommodate the way people use the Internet. Nobody will subscribe to sites they browse only casually. The disaster newspapers face is a symptom of a vaster problem – how to compensate content-creators – that demands a Web-wide response.

One intriguing solution would pool money from users and parcel it out to participating Web sites in proportion to usage. That’s the proposal of a California startup called Kachingle, recently championed by columnist Steve Outing in Editor & Publisher Online. It’s logical and fair.

But contributions would be voluntary, and I don’t see why. Why shouldn’t they be mandatory? Let me, as a consumer, pre-pay monthly into that pool, and let participating sites set their rates and charge my stored-value card for my usage. I’m rewarded with Internet-wide privileges, the sites I rely on get the money they need.

It’s a gamble, which is still preferable to the current situation, which is a sure loser.

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