Could Micropayments Save Newspapers?

At last month’s media panel, somebody (I believe Adrienne Russell) mentioned the idea of micropayments for online media content. Such payments might help save the newspaper industry as well as help fund better bloggers.

The idea is that readers would pay a small fee — say a quarter or fifty cents — to read an article online. A popular story that drew a hundred thousand readers could do quite well for a publication.

Consider how the Wall Street Journal presents its news stories. It gives you the headline and the opening sentences, then asks you to subscribe. But I don’t subscribe to that paper, because I rarely want to read one of its news stories (and its opinions are available for free). But, if I could pay a small, one-time fee to read the occasional story, I’d probably pay that paper a few dollars per year. That’s not a lot, but multiplied by a few hundred thousand extra readers it could add up. Indeed, newspapers could offer monthly subscriptions for regular readers as well as micropayments for occasional readers.

At the media panel, Greg Moore of the Denver Post said a couple of things of particular interest to this issue. First, he said that newspapers might have to print less frequently. Second, readers would have to pay for online content, eventually, for newspapers to survive and thrive. I can envision a newspaper that goes to press, say, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The print edition would be stuffed with ads, comics, classifieds, crosswords — stuff people like to touch and feel. They would be big, perhaps nearly as many pages as seven days runs now, so subscription rates could at least stay even while production and distribution costs dropped dramatically. This would be the answer to traditionalists, who actually enjoy getting their hands dirty reading the paper. (I would as soon eat dinosaur eggs for breakfast.)

Under such a scheme, the Post would raise revenue from print and online ads, print and online subscriptions, online only subscriptions, and micropayments for individual stories. Publications that used micropayments would probably want to make some significant portion of its content available for free.

Bloggers (the kind with actual readers) and strictly online publications might also be able to employ micropayments for more ambitious stories.

The key to micropayments, of course, is to make them easy. A PayPal account might get the job done, or perhaps PayPal could adapt its existing program to make micropayments easier. Most people aren’t going to pay a small fee to read an article unless it’s as easy as clicking a button or maybe two.

One publication that has already combined ads, micropayments, and subscriptions is The Objective Standard. The publication shows the first part of an article online for no cost. To read the entire article, one must subscribe or “Purchase a PDF of this article” for, in this case, $4.95. (Micropayments for journal articles or specialty articles can be higher than for regular newspaper stories.)

The more I think about it, the more I love the idea of micropayments. Don’t saddle me with a long-term commitment. I have enough of those. Don’t litter my screen with pop ups and flashing lights trying to sell me crap. (That said, a third option to a subscription or a micropayment might be to watch, say, a thirty second video advertising some product before reading the article. I notice that Fox already does this for online video.) Just give me the option of paying a small fee to read something that interests me.

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3 thoughts on “Could Micropayments Save Newspapers?”

  1. One cent or less is a micropayment. 25 cents (or $4.95) to read a single article (print your own hardcopy; I recently heard a radio ad saying color copies are now less than a cent apiece, but the details weren’t specified, such as minimum quantity or contract length) is NOT; it’s a macropayment, when you can buy the whole hardcopy newspaper for say 50 cents with dozens, if not hundreds, of articles (many from syndication).

    I agree, the process needs to be made easy, but it also needs to be made very low cost–I look at the marginal cost of reading another article, even if it’s the only article I’m interested in (I’ve been interested in various archived articles behind pay walls, but the prices are generally steep, several dollars an article, whereas I have to watch every dollar I spend).

    I’m waiting for newspapers and other periodicals to address the issue of “clipping” online articles i.e. being able to send a copy (or a link) to a friend for no additional cost to read it. I think this is “fair use” under the copyright law as analogous to physical print copies and clippings.

  2. Anonymous will forgive me if I decline to accept his or her arbitrary definition of “micropayment.” What is considered “micro” and “macro” is hardly the central issue; what’s important is that publications could start charging some small fee to read individual articles.

    Ultimately the level of payment will be what the market will bear, and it will likely vary considerably by publication and type of article.

    Physical clipping is not similar to e-mail forwarding, in that the forwarder retains a copy, whereas the clipper sends the physical original.

  3. I’d seriously consider paying for content if I could pay less than 25 cents per article and get a bill on my credit card once a month or week for all the articles I’ve read during that period with no minimum. Show me the headline and the first paragraph for free. Might work really well for an aggregator, too, like if a Colorado site provided links from stories throughout the state, I’d probably pay for some from Grand Junction, Pueblo, CS, Vail, etc. Payments could be sent back to the originating paper or author.

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