Walter Isaacson was Jon Stewart’s guest last night on The Daily Show. The two discussed Isaacson’s new article in TIME Magazine: How to Save Your Newspaper.
Isaacson argued that online information shouldn’t be exclusively ad supported, and that journalists should consider a small charge for articles, similar to the iTunes payment system for songs.
Stewart pointed out that people don’t value an article the same way they value a song. A news article generally matters for a shorter period of time, and I’m likely to read it fewer times, but I’ll play a song many times. But a news article does have some value, particularly if it’s a long-form piece that journalist has spent weeks or months researching, as opposed to a one-paragraph news brief. So Stewart’s point is relevant to to price one could charge for an article, but not necessarily the question of whether to charge.
And Isaacson has a point about the viability of relying on one revenue source - advertising - that has weakened in line with the economy:
Newspapers and magazines traditionally have had three revenue sources: newsstand sales, subscriptions and advertising. The new business model relies only on the last of these. That makes for a wobbly stool even when the one leg is strong. When it weakens — as countless publishers have seen happen as a result of the recession — the stool can’t possibly stand.
Because of the exclusive reliance on advertising, people have come to expect things to be free online, and don’t pay as much attention to the amount of effort that goes into creating good information. Isaacson makes the case for a system that diversifies revenue for journalism, but not just for the large, traditional media outlets:
This would not only offer a lifeline to traditional media outlets but also nourish citizen journalists and bloggers. They have vastly enriched our realms of information and ideas, but most can’t make much money at it…A micropayment system would allow regular folks, the types who have to worry about feeding their families, to supplement their income by doing citizen journalism that is of value to their community.
I say this not because I am “evil,” which is the description my daughter slings at those who want to charge for their Web content, music or apps. Instead, I say this because my daughter is very creative, and when she gets older, I want her to get paid for producing really neat stuff rather than come to me for money or decide that it makes more sense to be an investment banker.
Hard to argue with that last point, especially now. So, if there was an easy, iTunes-style payment system, would you be willing to pay to read this article?