Lichen Frittata

Saving the News: My Master Plan

Posted in Uncategorized by lichenfrittata on January 16, 2009

David Carr’s idea of an “iTunes for the news” is both tremendously attractive to those desperately seeking a journalistic lifeboat and easily ripped to shreds by those who believe they’ve already found the answer. Ad revenue is all you need! fulminates Scott Rosenberg. Why would anyone want to pay for news coverage you can get anywhere for free? Jeff Jarvis follows up.

I don’t know the answer to this conundrum any more than your average print-edition-loving wannabe reporter. But as far as I can tell, online advertising ain’t it: despite cluttering their sites with flashy things that make content almost impossible to read, newsrooms are still cutting staff to the point where there’s barely enough content to read. Rosenberg’s pat answer that the new model just won’t make as much money isn’t satisfactory; at the point where the New York Times has drastically slimmed down its operations and is still closing foreign bureaus, it’s really not enough at all. This is the quality of information we’re talking about, the very underpinning of our economy and our democracy. Not something you want to put entirely at the whim of advertisers.

Of course the direct iTunes correllary is not the best way to do this—VF Daily’s satire brings out the ludicrousness of having to look at a list of articles and consciously fork over a buck for each one. It’s a lot harder to do that for something so transient as a newspaper article that you’ll skim and never see again. Instead, I envision a quiet tracking system for the Times that would total up your news consumption at the end of the month, like a credit card statement. It would be like buying a subscription, except that you wouldn’t have to pay for the crap you didn’t want to read. And it would be inexpensive, say five cents an article. Do you really scan more than 20 articles in a day? If so, hopefully you’d still be able to buy a flat-fee, unlimited subscription.

I realize that this resembles earlier systems that used micropayments, which Tim Porter consigned to the graveyard of failed ideas five years ago. But we’re in a different place now, where people are raising the possibility that The Times Company could even just cease to exist. Once we start understanding reliable information as something that costs money to produce and should cost money to consume, it won’t seem so onerous. We’ve been ridiculously spoiled, and it’s catching up.

The only hitch I can think of is this: is information a public right? It’s really hard to stomach the idea that poor people would have less access to meaty news than rich people, like eating at MacDonalds instead of being able to shop at Whole Foods. If that is the case, if news delivery is a market failure, we need to develop a better system of public information: making the news into a utility, like gas or electricity. I don’t mind being paid out of tax dollars if tax payers aren’t willing to do it voluntarily.


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