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Will Micropayments Save Newspapers -- Or, Should They be Saved?

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The collapse of the newspaper business and the efforts to find ways to save newspapers are starting to feel alot like the efforts to bail out the banks; yes, we truly need both credible news-gathering organizations and financial systems, but is there truly a way to stave off the changes leading to the current collapse?

I love news, and I love local newspapers and I love...I could go on and on--but it starts to feel like an intervention with someone who is all too painfully aware that despite their good intentions, they're continuing to drink--ie, the legacy systems, the ad margins, the physical plants, the leveraged debt--newspaper companies have tons of baggage, that, combined with  shifts over the past 5 years in consumer behavior, are that mill stone around their necks, the 300-lb albatross dragging the shop down.

So, are micropayments the solution?

Walter Issacson, a brilliant writer and magazine editor who went off to the Aspen Institute about 10 years ago after a long tenure at the top of Time Inc, has a story live today called How to save your newspaper that lays out the following argument: Why pay for the cow, if you can get the milk for free, or in other words, giving away free news online is "economically self-defeating."  He also points out, most wisely, that relying on only one revenue stream, like advertising, is madness (Time Inc's masterly database and direct mail marketing lists cannot help but leap to mind as I write this.)

So the short version of what Issacson is proposing is that media companies charge for access to content like Apple charges for downloads of music from the iTunes story.  Why not require users, says Issacson to pay, oh, 10 cents or less for each item a reader wants. The catch here, of course, is not putting the payments system in place--ecommerce systems already exist that could be rejiggered or repurposed.

No, there are two issues that stand in the way:

1) Could the famously contentious media industry agree to all install metered gates on their web sites, forsaking bits of their ad revenue as they try to switch consumers to micro-paid content?
2) Would users/readers actually want the established companies content enough to pay?

While we know #1 is unlikely, #2 is actually impossible,  You see, the problem with the current big company media system isn't only that it's got debt and an infrastructure that don't support its costs, it's the customers don't care about these brands the way they used to. On one hand, you have news as a commodity, crowd-sourced on Google News, YouTube and Digg, it's origin buried in a mess of aggregated links.

On the other hand you have mico-niche businesses, all new and web-based, springing up to take the audience and the revenue away. Some of these authors may have started out valuing fame more than fortune, but they've now built strong niche businesses that audiences flock to.

  • The Daily Kos? Fella says he made $1MM in ad revenue last year. Plus more $$ from consulting, events, and so on.
  • Talking Points Memo? Just hired a pundit away from the Portfolio and is expanding
  • Liz Smith, Lesley Stahl, Erma Bombeck? Aced by dooce, who's making money as the leading mommyblogger/essayist, and one of the top 100 most trafficked blogs.
  • BlogHer? Divine Caroline, Glam, Sugar--giving all those in paper women's sections and soft features a run for their money--and winning.

Huh, Walter, maybe that horse of paid content done left the barn.