Here’s a story the newspaper industry’s upper echelon apparently kept from its anxious newsrooms: A discreet Thursday meeting in Chicago about their future.
“Models to Monetize Content” is the subject of a gathering at a hotel which is actually located in drab and sterile suburban Rosemont, Illinois; slabs of concrete, exhibition halls and mostly chain restaurants, whose prime reason for being is O’Hare International Airport. It’s perfect for quickie, in-and-out conclaves.
There’s no mention on its website but the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, has assembled top executives of the New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Lee Enterprises and Freedom Communication Inc., among more than two dozen in all. A longtime industry chum, consultant Barbara Cohen, “will facilitate the meeting.”
I can see the headline already: Newspaper Bigs Form Trust To Set Content Prices.
We do need to be serious here. The Situation is dire. Humpty Dumpty is reaching terminal velocity.
But don’t bother wishing the king’s horses and men luck with the fix. They can’t do it. No newspaper trade group, no collection of top newspaper executives, will come up with a creative solution to problems that have already earned Top Rank status in the innovators dilemma casebook. The best these execs can do is make Humpty’s fall a drop into cyberspace. They have to make Humpty Net-native. They can’t do that just with better-and-better websites, or with “monetization” schemes such as “micropayments” or other scarcity plays with a net-ish gloss.
As disruptive technologies go, it’s hard to beat the Interent. The Net didn’t just push Humpty off the wall. It blew up that wall and the whole world on which both sat. In that wall’s place is a wide-open space where abundance is not only the prevailing condition, but a severly reproductive one that’s especially suited to interesting “content.” As Kevin Kelly aptly puts it, The internet is a copy machine. One measure of content’s worth is how much it gets copied and quoted. How the hell do you monetize that?
In a New Yorker piece this week, Bill Keller, the Times‘ Executive Editor, said, “There’s a crying demand for what we do and, sadly, a diminishing supply of it. How we get the demand to pay for the supply is the existential question of newspapers in general and the Times in particular.” He’s right in all but one respect: that first person plural we. Unless he’s referring to a population of sufficient generality to include readers. Or, more importantly, hackers. Geeks bearing gifts.
As it happens, we (the geeks) have one. It’s called EmanciPay. It hands the pricing gun over to the customers (readers in this case) and then makes it easy for them to pay as much as they like, however they like, on their terms. Or at least to start with that full set of options. Whatever readers decide to pay, the sum of it won’t be $0, which is what readers are paying now. (Online, at least, in nearly all cases.)
Time for some polls! No surprise: People like to read newspapers online. Also no surprise: But people don’t pay for it. Somewhat of a surprise: People say that they are willing to pay for some kind of news.
I conduct similar audience polls often, though my subject is usually public radio. “How many people here listen to public radio?” Nearly all hands go up. “How many of you pay for it?” About 10% stay up. “How many would pay for it if it were real easy?” More hands go up. “How many would pay if stations would stopped begging for money with fund drives?” Many more hands go up, enthusiastically.
So the market is there. The question is how to tap it.
At ProjectVRM we propose tapping it from the customers’ side: for newspapers, from the readers side. We also propose doing it one way for all readers and all newspapers, rather than X different ways for X different papers, each designed by each paper for their own readers. In that direction lies a field of silos, all with their own scarcities, their own frictions, their own lock-ins. We need one way to do this for the same reason we need one way to do email.
Remember back when AOL, Prodigy, Lotus Notes, MCIMail and the rest all had their own ways of making you correspond? That’s what we’ll get if we leave content monetization up to the papers alone. They’ll all have their own ways of locking you in, just like retailers all have their own “loyalty” programs, each with their own cards, their own barcodes for you, their own reward systems, their own special ways of inconveniencing you for their own exclusive benefit.
EmanciPay will be simple and straightforward. It will make it easy for you to pay what you want (which may be what the papers what you to pay … or more … or less), and to do it on your terms and not just theirs. This doesn’t mean that the papers can’t have terms of their own. Maybe they have a suggested price, or a minimum they’re willing to accept. Whatever they come up with, however, will be informed by interaction out in the open marketplace, rather than their own private ones, where they make all the rules.
Think of EmanciPay as a way to unburden sellers of the need to keep trying to control markets that are beyond their control anyway. Think of it as a way that “free market” can mean more than “your choice of captor.” Think of it as a way that “customer relationships” can be worthy of the label because both sides are carrying their ends of the relationship burden — rather than the sellers’ side carrying the whole thing (as CRM systems do today).
EmanciPay is an open source project. When it rolls out, it will be free and open to anybody.
Want to help? Let me know. (firstname at lastname dot com) I’m serious.
The only problem is that development work on EmanciPay is just getting started. (I haven’t wanted to publicize it, because I wanted it to be ready to go — or at least to vet — first.) But that’s also an opportunity.
What matters for the papers is that there’s at least one answer to their challenge out there. And it’s free for the making.