When I was young, I delivered the newspaper. For a while, just the now-defunct local weekly, but later, the Pittsburgh Press, now also gone, but at the time the only 7 day a week paper in the city. The going theory went, the afternoon paper was dying, and only a morning newspaper was viable. In the fallout, the Post-Gazette was unable to publish during the strike which marked the end of the Press, and Richard M. Scaife was able to make the move into the Pittsburgh newspaper market.
In the time since then, I went to college, got a job, bought a house. I was a Post-Gazette subscriber for many years, until it became apparent from the large pile of newspapers on my porch, some as many as 6 months old, that I wasn't reading them. The problem, it seems, is that in spending so much time in front of a computer, I'd started getting my news from the internet.
When the web wasn't yet very mature, and I was newly staff at CMU, there was talk already of micropayment systems: NetBill was an academic proof of concept for which at some point I was able to obtain demo software. Startup CyberCash, whose assets were eventually purchased in bankruptcy by Paypal, would attempt to develop a system called CyberCoin based on this concept. In a universe where things like Firefox's extensions were but a pipe dream, and web browsers themselves were closed source, and couldn't be modified, a system which did payment for content would likely involve cookies and redirects, and wouldn't be particularly unobtrusive to the end-user. So the idea of micropayments never took off, and little wonder, as the experience wasn't particularly pleasant.
Still, content providers, or at least some of them, pushed ahead with putting content on the internet. The Tribune-Review, Scaife's newspaper, plunged headlong into the venture, promising in some many words to bury the Post-Gazette by moving quickly into the electronic sphere. For a venture heavily supported by advertising, perhaps the idea of clickable advertising held some merit. It's easy to see in hindsight that it wouldn't work out that way, and Craigslist would later appear to eat the lunch of classified advertising.
So at this point, the genie's out of the bottle: the content is being distributed for less than the cost of producing it. Other means of recovering cost aren't. Some sites have tried things like access only for subscribers, marginalizing their content. Others charge for archives, in many cases far more per article than the entire newspaper cost when it was published. Still others, like what the New York Times' "TimesSelect" was, charged for premium content. Given layoffs, closings, and the like, I have to assume it's not working. So what's the answer?
After musing on Twitter and having a short discussion with Uncle Crappy in February, we talked a little more about it on Wednesday, so it's rolling around in my head again.
In general, to get people to start paying for something they're already getting for free, you need to offer them something better. I can already get a lot of news for free. Why would I want to pay? One potential reason is for better, easier, or more ubiquitous access. I'd hoped perhaps the Kindle might be the answer. The Kindle represents a point at which paradigm change is possible. Presentation and delivery can be managed. But an opportunity is being missed: I can subscribe to, say, the Washington Post for $10 per month. But that's a lot if what i'm after is a la carte issues, or even a la carte articles. And the Kindle model doesn't help me if I want something old. No doubt the Kindle will have a similar issue here as it does with books, namely, that its DRM model eliminates the First Sale Doctrine rule which allows me to resell or give away a book I've purchased.
So here's the pitch, a business for an ebook hardware vendor to partner with a newspaper or group of newspapers, and find a business to make both happy. Invest in micropayment technology, and tie it to the ebook reader. Let readers buy news, ideally a la carte, and let them have it deducted from a pool of money refreshed when it's exhausted, not unlike EZPass. Make the payments reasonable: if I can get a newspaper for $.50, expecting me to pay more than that for one article tomorrow probably isn't going to get you much business. Make it simple. But most of all, make it. The business will come.