A Penny for My Thoughts

01/29/2009 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can journalism be saved? In yesterday's New York Times, Yale investment manager David Swensen and a colleague, Michael Schmidt, proposed creating endowed institutions for journalism. The industry's financial model has come undone: its three streams of income, always a delicate balance between newsstand or subscription revenue, big advertisers, and small advertisers, are drying up like Lake Powell. Yet the need and (based on web traffic) the public interest has not abated. Paying for "content" is supposedly anathema to web users. So what's a journalist to do?

Think iTunes. Or, for you traditional print purveyors, newsstand sales. Web subscription attempts have failed miserably. But the newsstand model hasn't been tried. For years, consumers were happy to pay what they considered spare change (a nickel in the old days, and about 50 cents until just recently) to buy a newspaper off the newsstand. Out of the hundred articles or so in a daily paper, they'd really read 10, and dip into another 10 or so. For their 50 cents, then, they'd get about 20 articles.

Voila. What if online journalism was priced that way? Set up an account. You get the headlines for free. Click to read something, and your universal news account is charged a couple of pennies, up to maybe a nickel, for a story. Send it to a friend, and there's another nickel charged. The money would have to be small enough that it was not a disincentive to making the click. But for the journalists, it would add up. Would you pay the Times $100 for a year-long online subscription? The evidence says no. But would you pay a nickel per story twice a week to read your favorite columnists, say Paul Krugman and David Brooks? That's $10.40 a year right there, and you're on your way.

Following the iTunes model, those clicks can lead not only to income for news agencies, but royalties for the journalists (and their editors, factcheckers--whoever touches an article), directly rewarding those who find the most interesting, compelling stories. Over time, those whose work is unreliable, dull, or slow to market would be weeded out. Along the way, the battle between "bloggers" and "journalists" would be ended. Anyone could contribute to the central news system; the news agencies' brands would likely get more clicks based on the standards they set for their copy.

Swensen (who, incidentally, was my Freshman Counselor in college) may be right that it will take endowed institutions to make even this idea work; organizations like our big-city newspapers with hundreds of journalists reporting stories from the smallest local items to international news may still become obsolete. But paying a penny for one's thoughts was always a fair price in love. Let's see how it fares in reporting.