I want to pay for good writing. I really do. The problem is, no-one seems to have worked out how to do it. Luckily I have.
As Matthew Sinclair points out, for a standard punter to pay for their media is prohibitively expensive. We can all agree that journalists deserve paying for their labours, but if you chose to buy subscriptions to reasonable range of digital news media, you’re looking at an annual bill of almost one and a half thousand pounds.
That’s a lot. Worse, Matthew’s estimate is only his preferred news media – he’s paying for the Spectator, but not the New Statesman, for example. Want access to everything and you’re talking even more.
Even then, Matthew’s money doesn’t give him what he wants. Say there’s an interesting article in a foreign publication he rarely reads. He’s not going to pay for a subscription, but he can’t read it unless he does. Boo!
So what can we do?
One answer is to make everything free to view, and pay for content advertising. There are three problems with this. First, the’yre not generating enough income to keep writers and editors out of poverty. Second, as a result, adverts are increasingly awful and intrusive and finally and entirely relatedly, I now have adblock plus installed.
So some media have decided to go for paywalls – hard, soft or moated.
A hard paywall says you don’t get anything unless you buy the package. Problem with this is that you have to really like David Aaronovitch and Caitlin Moran to pay £26 a month to vault over the wall cash in hand to get at their opinionated goodies. (News stories too of course, but ragging on opinion writers is far more enjoyable).
A soft paywall gives you a few articles a month to read, the most articles you’re most excited by intended to lure you inside like the scantily clad woman at the door of a Soho clip joint. (Traumatic experience when Seventeen. £30 for a lemonade. Lost father’s scarf intended to make me appear adult). This solves the casual browsing problem. But there are issues here too. It’s trivially easy, but a bit annoying to get round such soft paywalls1. It’s also quite annoying because you forget. Is there a word for the moment of disappointment when you click on a link, only to be confronted by the dull shading out of a webpage that presages an pop-up inviting you to hand over money?
Then there’s the moat. You guard your core content like a lioness, but throw tasty morsels- blogs, gossip, hilarious gags to the populace, hoping the will beg for admission to the cultural nirvana that surely waits inside, if these are but the offcuts. Trouble is, no-one know what’s an offcut and what’s prime beef. Plus, these are journalists, notoriously shy and unambitious individuals. Won’t they put their best stuff in the offcuts, where more people will see them? The scoundrels!
There’s a final option too. Let’s just not pay people while we feast on the revenue streams they create!
To this I say: Fuck you Huffington Post. Fuck you everywhere and in every place. I will see your ‘business model’ dead, buried and pissed upon by writers with actual paychecks and royalties.
From this we conclude that this market is not working very well. It needs a bit of intervention.
Matthew, being a libertarian, free market kind of fellow, suggests a micropayments system. You pay a fee per article, with the payments system integrated into most media networks. It’s effectively an extension of what’s happening with e-books. I have some experience of this, because my partner makes her living this way now. I’ve seen how the e-book market has driven down the cost of books, while giving a much broader range of authors a steady income (and some, untold wealth).
It’s done this by absolutely shafting publishers. How would this work in news media? Who gets screwed: the curators and the quality controllers: The editors who challenge writers and the subs who tidy them up. My partner can choose whether to pay for a sub and an editor who’ll pull her up on her mistakes. I’m not sure that choice is a good thing when you’re dealing with facts.
Consider another example: Today, I get nothing from this blog, and Polly Toynbee works for the Guardian. Fair enough.
Now imagine a market with deep micropayment integration. In this market, I might get a few thousand purchases a day, Polly a few hundred thousand. I’m over the moon, naturally, because I’m getting a hundred quid a day where before I’m getting nothing. Polly, on the other hand, might not be so happy. Sure, she’s still working for the Guardian, but she’s their biggest draw, she can see the money flow towards her articles: Where’s that money going? To pay for Seumas Bloody Milne’s odes to Stalin! Why shouldn’t she decamp to PollyandPals.com and keep that money for herself? Glenn Greenwald knows how it goes.
There’s another problem too. The Phillips/Young conundrum. I don’t like Melanie Phillips much. I’m no fan of Toby Young’s politics. But I accept that as they toil, so should they reap, or whatever. But if I’m giving them 5p, I will hesitate at the door. Do I really want to read this? I will ask myself. This is bad, because I will gravitate only to views with which I agree. This is bad for me. It will also encourage ever more flagrant attention-seeking by writers. Just think of all those pennies flying towards the most extreme end of the opinion freak show. In the end, we will all be Snooki.
So, while I like the idea of paying for content more seamlessly, choosing individual articles feels too atomistic. It feels like a pre-broken market.
So how about a more social-democratic interventionist approach?
What did people do back in the day, when everything was made of paper, and paper was expensive? They formed Subscription Libraries! So why can’t we create something similar now?
Carl Gardner suggested something like this:
— Carl Gardner (@carlgardner) August 27, 2014
Here, publishers and even no-mark bloggers would get a fee from a central body – let’s call it Newsify. Newsify would guarantee its members unlimited access to all content. So once you were inside the wall, you’d get access to everything. Melanie Phillips, Seumas Milne, That American woman you keep meaning to read more often, Me, everyone. The fee the publisher gets is correlated to their readership, obviously.
Now the interesting thing is that Spotify can put an independent album up next to a megastar on a major label. They give both 70% of their ad/subscription revenue. A self-produced indy might get a larger slice of the pie – no label to pay, but the major label might get a far bigger piw – marketing, A&R etc etc. THis is similar to kindle, too. A self published author can get a bigger slice of their ebook revenue, but Lee Child gets more readers. The same probably applies to news and opinion.
A blogger might get a larger share of a smaller revenue pot than a traditional ‘name’ columnist or journalist. However, it would still be the interest of Aaronovitch to stay at the Times – because they would invest in promoting him, would offer him a stability of income, and would edit and curate his work to a high standard. No shoddy bedroom production for David!
Would this make money for anyone? Spotify is losing money hand over fist. For Musicians, it can be a bad deal too. Spotify hands out less than a cent a stream. So you’d need more than a thousand listeners an hour to make any more than minimum wage2. Translate that to articles read, and you can see the pot of gold might not be so good. At this blog I’d be generating between a tenner and twenty quid a day. On a good a day. Still, I get nowt now, so I wouldn’t be unhappy.
But it’d surely reresent a massive increase in revenue over current models. You’re paying Toynbee and Aaronovitch and Moran and losing money now. Plus it’s not like any other model is working, right? May as well see if this one stands a chance of succeeding where all the others miserably failed.3
There’s one other benefit too. It’s a huge hidden pool of loveliness waiting for consumers to dive in. Archives. News media has the most fantastic long tail imaginable, and it pisses it right up against the wall, because Newspaper Editors are idiots trained to think only today’s news matters to readers. What a news subscription library could really add value is by creating better links between content themes.
An example: I was reading the other day about this absorbing murder case. Now, it turns out, that over the intervening decades, all sorts of articles have been written, many brilliant. But are these links anywhere except google and wikipedia? Is anyone in media thinking that these articles are an asset?
To bring it to my own interests – Can I find a set of lovingly curated articles on British Social Housing in the Fifties as easily as I can find Jump blues playlists on Spotify? Can I balls. News organisations: You don’t even need to pay archivists to make the links- Put it all together, and pale wobblies like me will do it for love.
The core truth is that the news media business right now is making it harder, not easier for me to know stuff because they’re trying to find a way to make their business model work.
Make it easier for me to find stuff out, to learn new things, and make unexpected connections and I will bash you over the head with my eagerness to give you my money and you’ll have a business model that works without you quite understanding why.
So off you go. Make this thing happen. I just want a 1% of it, as commission.
- One day I shall convince my partner that I am using privacy windows and clearing my cookie cache to read the Telegraph, not hide my porn habit. Sad thing is, it’s true [↩]
- I wonder if some enterprising musicians have their own music on all the time on spotify [↩]
- OK, one problem. The sidebar of shame might make money. Maybe. £41 million in revenue isn’t that fantastic for a business that is piggybacking a lot of costs on the Print version. Still, you could put a branded sidebar on any subscription library content if you wanted to drive traffic to your other stories about the Kardashians [↩]