How to charge for content. Theoretically.
It won’t be easy for publishers to overcome the Original Sin of giving away their valuable content for free. But it could be done. Theoretically.
The most logical way, as suggested prominently by David Carr in the New York Times and Walter Isaacson on the cover of Time Magazine, is some sort of micro-payment system.
Here’s how it would work: Consumers would use their credit cards to fund accounts to purchase online content through a single system deployed at the largest possible number of participating websites. We might call the system the Universal Simple Interactive Network, or UN-SIN for short.
Whenever a consumer wanted to watch a video, view a picture, listen to a podcast or read an article, she would click the UN-SIN button on the web page or mobile screen to authorize payment.
The amount of the charge would be up to the individual publisher but presumably would be kept to pennies, or even fractions of pennies, to encourage maximum readership. Consumers might not like being micro-nickled and nano-dimed for every article, but they would get over it, if the content were sufficiently compelling.
The problem with this otherwise-elegant solution is that UN-SIN wouldn’t work for one publisher if a competing publisher decided to provide the same, or nearly identical, content for free. If one publisher posted the score of a hockey game in the clear to gain traffic, then his competitors would have to do so, too. And the initiative would quickly collapse.
The other gotcha is that content would have to be secured so that someone who bought it could not turn around and provide it to a friend or, worse, publish it to the web in defiance of UN-SIN. Although this is a non-trivial technical problem, it already has been solved reasonably well by a number of companies.
I headed one such company, called SealedMedia, until the tech bust in 2001. Our technology was awesome, our system was effective and it was priced to appeal to even the thriftiest client. But only a handful of publishers were smart enough to put a priority on getting paid for their content. Today, they are doing quite well. So, I know this can work.
Because there is little hope of securing such generic news as breaking events, stock prices, election results and sports scores, the only content that publishers can sell in the immediate future is exclusive, premium content that they create themselves. A major hurdle in moving to pay content, therefore, will be cost-effectively producing enough of the right kind of content to get customers to click the UN-SIN button.
This is the approach the New York Times employed with TimesSelect, which briefly put its marquee columnists behind a pay firewall. The paper abandoned the program a couple of years ago in the hope it would generate more page views, and thus more banner ad revenues, by providing free access to the likes of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. Editor Bill Keller told readers last week that the financially pressed Times is revisiting the idea of getting paid for its content.
Although a specialized newspaper like the Wall Street Journal has successfully required payment for its articles, the widespread adoption of paid content among general-interest media would require a critical mass of publishers to agree to collaborate more earnestly, more broadly and more smoothly than any group of humans in history.
Could it happen? Theoretically.