March 28, 2011

NY Times Paywall: Ignoring the Micropayments Lesson from Outer Space!

Greetings. As you likely know by now, the New York Times paywall is scheduled to launch in the U.S. and globally today, to, uh, considerable controversy.

While their paywall system reportedly includes a range of exceptions and options, the bottom line is that it is complex for users and subject to bypass in various ways.

But beyond that, it is -- along with most other large news-oriented Web subscription services paywalls -- inherently selfish by design.

It may seem strange to call the Times' paywall selfish given the promised ability for free viewing of articles referred from other sites. But each such view will supposedly still count against a non-subscriber's monthly quota of 20 free "non-referral" views at the Times site itself, and when you hit that limit, your most inexpensive option for continued non-referred access appears to be a subscription purchase.

By contrast, if I have an urge to read the Times on any given day, I can pop over to a nearby newsstand and buy a single printed copy without any muss, fuss, complications, or further obligations.

The ability to easily buy a physical "day pass" to a newspaper is of course a model that goes back to the dawn of commercial journalism.

The beauty of a longer-term subscription model is clear enough to newspaper publishers -- the more dollars you can lock in on a guaranteed basis, especially for a product as essentially fungible as news, the better for the bottom line.

Yet there is another model -- one straight from the science fiction of outer space.

Gordon Randall Garrett's wonderful 1963 story A World by the Tale tells of a human author offered what appears to be a humiliatingly low royalty rate in exchange for galaxy-wide publication rights to his book, courtesy of a notoriously stingy Galactic Civilization that has recently discovered Earth. The royalty percentage? One thousandth of one percent.

But when his first royalty check arrived, the author was stunned by the enormous size of the resulting amount, and the information that such large sums could be expected to continue paying to him throughout the rest of his life -- making him even by Galactic standards a very wealthy man.

What he hadn't considered initially, is that the galaxy is a very big place.

And so, relatively, is the Internet.

There have been various attempts at implementing "micropayment" systems on the Net -- the equivalent of that seemingly tiny Galactic royalty offer.

None have been notably successful, due to a variety of technological, logistical, or other reasons. But the concept is still very sound, especially for the maturing Internet of today.

How many millions of people might be willing to pay a penny per page to view specific New York Times articles of interest -- or articles at other sites?

$10 at this rate would buy 1000 page views, that a user could distribute as desired among a wide variety of sites -- rather than being forced to spend relatively large chunks of cash at single sites for much greater access than they really need or want.

Instead of Internet users' limited content purchase funds being funneled to only a few powerful, established enterprises in big chunks, enormous numbers of users could individually spend a tiny amount at a vast range of individual sites, which could still see significant income based on the sheer volume of visitors.

I am not suggesting that the free, ad-based model that we've come to enjoy on the Internet is flawed or undesirable -- but it may be at serious risk not only due to expensive paywalls, but also as a result of "do-not-track" efforts that seem to be unwisely barreling ahead, without appropriate consideration of inherent complexities and potential collateral damages.

Nor am I saying that the New York Times -- arguably the greatest newspaper on the planet -- isn't worth paying for.

But I am suggesting that the sorts of online subscription models that we see emerging to date are likely to benefit the few over the many.

I spend considerable time and money to operate this blog and my other venues. I don't run ads. Are these postings worth a penny to the average viewer -- the traditional cost of single gumball? Or -- dare I think it -- could they even be worth, say, a full nickel?

At least in an existential sense, we're all likely doing something very wrong if our Internet efforts aren't worth a single cent.

A widely deployed, successful, Internet micropayments system could allow virtually all Web sites -- even very small ones who chose to use it -- a means to compete on a playing field where Internet users could spend individually tiny amounts to view materials of real interest, rather than much larger amounts to purchase subscription packages including all sorts of materials that they don't necessarily really care about.

While most news and information sites on the Net remained free access, this did not seem to be an issue of notable concern. But now that the relatively expensive "big site" subscription news paywalls are going up, it's definitely time to revisit the micropayments concept, to see if we can create an environment where a vast range of Web sites -- rather than mainly the privileged big boys alone -- can participate in these evolutions.

All else being equal, I'd prefer that the "free access" Internet model continue. But the major news sites in particular seem hellbent on ending this golden age, and frankly that's their definitely their right -- in the main they have quite valid financial concerns.

But it would be utterly unreasonable for the rest of us to just sit by and let these major firms suck up the entirety of content purchase income, leaving untold millions of valuable sites effectively shut out entirely. Micropayments may be the key to helping establish a sense of equality in this important regard.

If the Internet is going to move toward "pay to view" -- then we should demand that all worthwhile content providers, even the smallest of sites, should be able to equitably participate in this ecosystem if they wish to do so.

It is, after all, a big galaxy -- and Internet -- out there.


Posted by Lauren at March 28, 2011 10:39 AM | Permalink
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