Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Palatable (and Workable) Model?

I don’t want to pay for content that I’ve been used to getting for free on the web any more than the next person does. But, I also do not want to see a wide variety of high quality news sources disappear all together because there’s no longer a business model that will support them.

It’s not too hyperbolic to ask, “What will all the exploiters of free content on the Web – from HuffPo to every Tom, Dick and Harry blogger – do when there’s no more New York Times, Reuters, Esquire, etc. from which to pilfer, react and sometimes expand? Where will that leave us would-be informed consumers?” Since it seems that advertising alone is no longer able to support quality journalism enterprises (whether print or digital), a new business model must be found. And, one way or another, something’s got to give.

A model such as the one outlined in this recent Newsosaur blog post may represent one of the more promising solutions – or at least the genesis of a sensible online monetizing system that would be palatable to consumers. It is by Alan Mutter, a former journalist and serial CEO in Silicon Valley who teaches a course called “Journalism in the Age of Disruption” (love that title!) at U. Cal. - Berkeley. Mutter was one of a select few presenters at a semi-secret meeting of the heads of many of the nation’s leading newspaper publishers that was convened in Chicago on May 28. In his post, Mutter outlines a system called ViewPass, an approach publishers could use to monetize online content without creating too much of a logistical impediment to users. He also briefly addresses related copyright protection issues. It’s obviously something that he believes in, as he has a vested interest in the project. (There are some good reader comments on his post, too.)

To me, ViewPass seems to be yet another variation on what can loosely be described as the Cable TV subscription model (or now, in Mutter’s analogy, the credit card system) that some of the more forward-thinking “state of the media industry” pundits have advocated in recent months. Such a model would enable customers to select a personal menu of sources to which they would get full access (and, ideally, other meaningful benefits, too) and for which they would pay one reasonable monthly fee. Ads would still help support the costs of the enterprise, but not to the extent of being so overwhelming that they devalue the user experience. In fact, under such a system ads could be much more targeted to the user’s interests – so theoretically less of an annoyance.

I’m sure there are more nuances and details to be worked out on these approaches, but of the various options I’ve seen presented thus far, this is more appealing than the outright gated community, pay-as-you-go model of accessing content site by site. In the end, the money has to come from somewhere, and until there is some substantial benevolent outside source of funding discovered, we should be considering the least painful and most effective ways we would pay for good content.

Personally, if my favorite newspapers and magazines were no longer available in print and accessible only digitally with an associated fee system, I could comfortably transfer some of my current print subscription and newsstand payments in order to have online and mobile access to that content. I say “some” because if the publishers are achieving substantial savings in printing and distribution (i.e., trucking/mailing) costs, then I would expect to see some cost break, too.

There’s a long way to go until the final chapter of this saga is written, but the plot does seem to be coming together. We’ll see what twists and turns remain between here and the final page.


  1. Further to the above, point: This article may seem like a statement of the obvious to some, but to many it clearly falls off the scales of consideration when looking at models of monetizing content on the web. Read it here:

  2. And another (this seems to be a hot topic this week) ... Much of this is kind of depressing ... and quite likely: