Pay to play: Can they save the Internet without destroying it?

June 8, 2009

Like a city newsroom scrambling after an unfolding disaster on deadline, the media world is suddenly afire with urgent new efforts to make online journalism pay.  For years now, news chiefs have focused on building audiences for their free websites in the belief that advertising revenues fat enough to cover the bills would eventually show up.

They haven’t. And with news organizations mired in a recession within a recession, from throughout the industry has come a nervous clamor to fashion some kind of direct consumer payment for online news, either through subscriptions, day-passes, micro-payments for each story or video downloaded, or some sweeping pre-paid scheme that would give readers access to a vast number of participating news sites.

Most recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., whose Wall Street Journal has been one of the few organizations to make money from online subscribers, says it’s looking at charging for the rest of its huge publishing fleet. The influential Newspaper Association of America is hosting meetings among top industry executives to look at payment schemes. The owner of Philadelphia’s two newspapers says they’ll be charging for content by year’s end. And Journalism Online, a group led by journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill (an old friend, I should note) says it’s close to signing its first clients for a payment system that will allow readers to pay for content from numerous sites.

I’m strongly in favor of direct payment, but the various proposals leave a critical question unanswered: How do you save the Internet without destroying it? How do you keep from upending the very features of Internet discourse that are most exhilarating and the most transformative? In short, what happens to file-sharing?

Right now, it’s estimated that only one in five readers of a news item reads it on the site where it originates. The others find it on secondary sites—the aggregators—or have it sent to them pasted onto e-mails, or read it excerpted alongside commentary on a blog, or any number of other ways.

It’s easy to lose sight of just how profoundly the easy ability to find, cut, ship and share content instantaneously on the Internet has utterly revolutionized the universe of news and commentary. But can those signature features survive when content is no longer shared freely?

Suppose I’m a subscriber to some new, pay-as-you-go, New York Times site. I naturally expect to be able to download a Times story, comment on it and put it on my own website for other people to read and discuss, or e-mail to 700 of my closest friends, from where it’ll continue to ricochet around cyberspace.

I may expect to do that, but if the Times allows it their effort to restrict access to paying customers will be a joke. People will just bypass the Times site and read the story for free on mine or any of thousands of other sites, easily discoverable through search engines.

I don’t see how this conclusion can be avoided: If publishers are going to not just beg for money but require it, pay walls will have to be built into the articles themselves. Everybody I share the Times story with will have to pay something to read it, presumably through some universalized charging mechanism. If they don’t pay, they won’t be able to open the story, no matter where they stumble on it it.

Amid the anxious discussions about news payment schemes, the future of file-sharing doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. As work continues on a business rescue plan for the news industry—one which must provide for real money to content creators—the historic challenge will be to ensure the survival of the Internet as more than just a sales channel, but as an unparalleled, universally accessible emporium of ideas, images and expression.

POSTSCRIPT:

Last time, in a column on Twitter’s potential impact on journalism, I opened with a reference to Matt Drudge’s 1998 online scoop about President Clinton’s liaison with a young intern. I suggested that although Drudge’s story is often recalled as an important moment in the ascendancy of online news, it really ought to be seen as a sign of the flagging ability of established media to control their own newsrooms, since what Drudge actually reported wasn’t the intern story, but the fact that Newsweek magazine had the intern story and wasn’t publishing it. That tip, I said, must have come from within Newsweek.

I received an interesting e-mail from Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who at the time the story broke was representing Linda Tripp, a former White House employee who was acquainted with the intern, Monica Lewinsky.  In her message, Goldberg said my speculation was wrong—Drudge’s story came from her, not from someone at Newsweek. In a subsequent e-mail, she said she and Tripp had taken the Lewinsky story to Newsweek. After weeks of reporting, the magazine decided not to run the story, and Goldberg says that on the advice of a mutual acquaintance she then took it to Drudge. She said Drudge didn’t know anybody at Newsweek.

I e-mailed Drudge in hopes of getting him to confirm Goldberg’s account, but he didn’t answer.  Her account suggests the Lewinsky scoop exemplified not the greater ability of news staffs to do end-runs around their own editors, as I suggested, but the inability of established news organizations to control the timing and the release of major news at a time when a great many alternative channels exist.

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