28 April 2009

Paying for the internet

Off my usual political topics, but it's crossed my mind a number of times recently that the only real salvation for American journalism will be if someone devises a system of micropayment for content rich websites, in order to pay for the content. We all want our internet to be free. Even Wikipedia, which tries to use a paradigm similar to public broadcasting; where they ask you to kick in a little scratch to keep the lights on, doesn't really raise much, compared to the service they provide. Newspaper sites have tried to figure out ways to make money, but they don't sell nearly enough advertising, and things like "Times Select", where the NYT tried to get people to pay $50 a year for access to premium content, haven't worked. I don't know if Slate and Salon are really viable long term, but it's clear that all sources will be in the same basic situation long term as people turn more and more to the online world for what they used to get from print journalism.

What's the solution? I don't pretend to know, but somehow, online 'micro-billing' software, that charges small sums to look at a particular site, is inevitable, I think. Maybe something like 30 or 35cts and then you get access for the whole day; if you want to avoid that, you subscribe, for $2 to $5 a month, depending on what it is, and the cookie tells the website you're a licensee. Alternatively, it could charge really small sums, like 2 to 5 cts, and you just get a license for 10 or 15 min. There would have to be some kind of content-billing clearing house that was set up to keep track of billions of tiny transactions with very small overhead; billing aggregated sums to credit cards or paypal once a month, or direct from bank accounts. I suspect this technology is already perfectly feasible. It's just a question of convincing people that accepting it is inevitable. The alternative is extinction of the journalism we want, because it's really obvious to everyone by now that the old paradigm of newspapers supported mainly by advertising just isn't working anymore, and online advertising isn't generating enough revenue to support the institutions of journalism.

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