Jon Garfunkel

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One of the geeks here at the Berkman Center walked into a room recently and started poking his index finger down on a newspaper that was laying on the table, as if expecting it to do something electronic. “This isn’t working,” he said.

So true, in so many ways.

Take for example the Boston Globe, New England’s landmark newspaper, and one to which we have subscribed since we got here in 2007. Like nearly all newspapers, the Globe is in Big Trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph from today’s bad news story:

The New York Times Co., which has threatened to shutter The Boston Globe, is seeking deep concessions from the Globe’s largest union that could include pay cuts of up to 20 percent, the elimination of seniority rules and lifetime job guarantees, and millions of dollars in cuts in company contributions to retirement and healthcare plans.

The Times may own the Globe in a legal sense, but in a much broader way the Globe also belongs to the people of Boston and New England. Everybody in New England benefits from the Globe, even if they don’t read or subscribe to it. It was in this sense that Scott Lehigh‘s column yesterday was titled, Readers, have a say in saving your paper. Here’s the long gist:

We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model. Troubled times have sent advertising revenues plummeting. Meanwhile, we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense – the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.

…I also doubt we’ll be able to maintain the kind of quality newspaper and website readers expect unless we start charging online visitors who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Newspapers, eyeing several earlier failed experiments, including one by the New York Times, are skittish. That approach has worked for the Wall Street Journal, however. And as someone long wary about giving away our product on the Web even as we sell it in print, I think it’s time to try.

So back to my question: What does the Globe mean to you?

Would you pay to read the paper online? Seven-day home delivery currently costs $9.25 a week in the Boston area. Would it be worth $10 or $12 a month to read Globe content on Boston.com? Another idea under discussion in the news industry is micropayments. You’d give a credit card number once, and then be charged a small amount – a nickel, say – for each story you clicked on. Which would you prefer, a subscription or micropayments?

Some think charging for Web content will only deter readers, while keeping links to our website from appearing on other sites. Any payment system must be voluntary, they say. I’m dubious. But tell me, if we nagged you incessantly – ah, make that, politely prompted you at frequent intervals – would you make a voluntary payment of some sort?

Finally, can you think of better ways to have online readers pay for Globe offerings?

Yes, I can. It’s the fifth item in the series of posts below:

  1. Newspapers 2.0 (October 5, 2006)
  2. Still at Newspapers 1.x (August 15, 2007)
  3. Toward a new ecology of journalism (September 12, 2007)
  4. Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. (September 19, 2007)
  5. PayChoice: a new business model for newspapers (February 5, 2009)

PayChoice (later re-named EmanciPay) will be an easy way for listeners to pay stations for public radio programming. It is in the early stages of development, aimed toward appearing later this year in the Public Radio Tuner on iPhones. At last report, downloads of the tuner were moving past 1.5 million, so far.

We could do PayChoice for newspapers as well.

Informing PayChoice on the Public Radio Tuner will be a Listen Log, which is one form of Media Logging. We can do a Read Log as well, at least for the electronic versions of newspapers. Among the many things I’d like the log to perform is what I call ascribenation. That is, the ability to ascribe credit to sources — and to pay them as well. Among other things, this addresses the Associated Press’ concerns about ‘misappropriation’ of its role as the first source for many stories for which it goes uncredited.

Jon Garfunkel also has a good idea worth considering. It’s called PaperTrust.

The bottom line here is that a lot of good people are working on solutions. These solutions are not the same old stuff in new wrappers. They’re original ideas, some of which the papers will have no control over.

But they can help. They can tune in to tech development efforts like the ones I descibe here, and welcome their geeks’ participation in them. They can write and post linky text. (The Globe is better than some in this respect, but still link-averse on the whole.) They can finish following the other recommendations they’ll find here (the first of which isn’t too far from what Scott would like to do).

And, it might still be impossible to save the paper.

The question comes down to living without advertising. Can it be done? If so, how? I guarantee that the answer to those questions will come from the outside. From geeks, mostly.

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