Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ted Rall on the future of online news, Part II

Having blogged about Part I of Rall’s three-part series last week, I wanted to tackle Part II now, to see how he would describe more of the problem, and if he saw any answers.
Would you pay for Mapquest? I’d pay a quarter or a dollar for reliable directions from the airport to my hotel in a new city. Sometimes, while researching this column, I encounter a link to an archived newspaper article that I could use, but it charges a $2 or $3 download fee. The cost isn’t the problem — it’s a miniscule, and in my case tax deductible, expense to make my work better. But I don’t bother. I don’t pay for Mapquest, either.

I don’t care about the money. I just can’t stand filling out all those fields.

Each website requires you to enter personal data — your name, address, credit card number, expiration date, that stupid security code next to the signature on your card, and the billing address (as opposed to the shipping address). Frequently, website interfaces are buggy; make a mistake and you have to start all over again. I’ll suffer through the ordeal if it's a site, like Amazon or Expedia, that I’ll use repeatedly. But an archived article? Ain’t worth my time to figure out how to get them my two bucks.

There is a solution to the online payment problem, says Simson Garfinkel, a fellow at the Harvard University Center for Research on Computation and Society and the author of “Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century.” (Disclosure: We’re friends.)

“If content is appropriately priced, of an appropriately high quality, and easy to access, people will pay for it,” asserts Garfinkel. “What is required is a system that is easy to use and licensing terms that are not onerous.”

A universal single-click payment system won't work, he says, because it would be vulnerable to hackers. We could overlay a national ID card or credit card system over the existing Internet. One of several competing micropayment systems may become dominant, creating a market-based solution. You'd register your debit or credit card info at one place. Then, when you wanted to download a song or read an electronic book or order shoes, you’d go to the vendor's website and click one button: “Buy.”

Amazon sort of does this. After you’ve registered, you can buy a book by clicking one button. Just like that, it’s on its way. We need something similar for vendors we’ve never dealt with before.

That said, Rall is still optimistic newspapers will muddle through, if not more. Now, that said, as should be evident by the title of Garfinkel’s book, he thinks notions of online privacy will have to change for that to happen.
Newspaper editors and publishers could reverse their decline by agreeing, en masse, to charge a substantial fee for their online editions — at least as much as for print. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Avoidance of long-term thinking is what’s gotten the news biz where it is today.

In the long run, despite their suicidal tendencies, I suspect newspapers will survive, and even thrive, after the current shakeout. When radio was introduced in the 1930s, many analysts predicted the death of the record industry. Instead, radio promotion increased record sales. When television became popular in the 1950s, people said radio was doomed. The radio business is bigger than ever. The Internet was supposed to kill TV.

The newspaper business will change. Three major trends ensure that. They will also make it bigger than ever.

Next Week: The bright (sic!) future of newspapers.

Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, I'll add a few observations about the industry.

Weeklies and semiweeklies, especially, not being AP members, have suffered less from the Internet. Their news is available from that newspaper, or that newspaper’s website, if it has one, and that’s it. That said, too many weeklies launched websites in the last five years or so without thinking about charging for subscriptions. They believed what the major dailies were already trying to brainwash themselves into believing, that an ad-based model would pay the bills.

For small-town dailies, the situation is somewhat the same.

That said, these papers tend to be even more conservative than the seven-day daily MSM. They are conservative in the Main Street/Chamber of Commerce, good-for-business sense, in one respect of conservativism. And, in much of the South and Midwest, it’s going to be small-town Babbitt-type religious conservativism, too.

There is one option, in larger cities: the alt-weekly. These papers are usually progressive to some, if not a fairly large degree, especially in a libertarian sense on social issues. They’re still weeklies, and especially with their long-form journalism as well, wouldn’t have a big desire to be AP members anyway.

But, they’re being affected by the Internet, too.

Alt-weeklies, like Internet sites, generally run on an ad-only model. And, personal ads of the sort that don’t appear in traditional daily papers make up a fair chunk of both classified and display ads there.

But, Craigslist is gutting alt-weekly classifieds in these areas. Personals websites are doing some of the damage, too.

Anyway, Rall is always thought-provoking to me, even when I disagree with him. I’m interested in what Part III will say.

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