Grab a copy of next week's Time magazine -- out there now -- and read Walter Isaacson's cover story. What do you think of his idea?
Update: What Isaacson proposes isn't a new idea, but this kind of prominent push always helps. He argues that newspapers have more readers than ever, but more and more of them are reading stories for free online, which doesn't help pay the tab to run the papers. Isaacson says the way to change the dynamic is to create a micropay system online where readers fork over a nickel or something for every story they read. It would add up.
It's pretty much the same idea that got forced on the music industry as iPods took over and made it so people got used to shelling out 99 cents a tune instead of downloading them for free from shadier sources.
There are no shady sources for news stories -- well, not many -- but we haven't found a way yet to make newspaper websites pay their freight. Perhaps Isaacson's push is what we need to do it.
I'd like to think a fair number of people would pay a few pennies to read what I write. Heck, some might even pay a dime.
In any case, I do think that journalism will be better for it if readers pay a good portion of the cost of getting news because the only obvious alternative is for advertisers to do it. And you'd have to live in la-la land to think that over time advertisers wouldn't come to rule the roost, undermining the credibility of what little journalism remains.
Anyway, let's see the issue dealt with. We need to do something different or the only thing the future holds is ... nothing.
I've been thinking of the economics here.
Including the cost of benefits and the raise I'm sure will be coming my way soon, I make about $1,000 per week (though I certainly never see that much, unfortunately). Now suppose that I write 12 stories per week on average. To cover my entire salary, each story would need to bring in about $83 on average. At a nickel a read, that means 1,670 or so people would need to be willing to chip in a nickel to pay me for each story.
And that leaves nothing to pay for the building, utilities, other people who are critical to the enterprise, or any profits at all. Advertising, though, ought to be able to cover some of the tab, even if it's all online.
Still, we're a long way from having a couple thousand people or more paying a nickel or more per story to keep me employed and The Bristol Press pumping out news each day.
To do this would take a massive, national and coordinated response from the newspaper business. While I'd like to think the folks who are in a position to make the deals and make it happen would bother, I'm not too impressed with the leadership shown by America newspaper companies, since they've mostly been leading us over a cliff. I'm deeply skeptical.
On the other hand, perhaps they'll hire Isaacson to lead up the effort and they'll all pull together to make this happen. It holds promise, which is more than you can say for doing the same old thing as one paper after another folds.
If this business is doomed, let's at least sink with our arms flailing instead of just holding our noses and treading water until we inevitably slip away.
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org