Ad-blocking software: what a great idea! Ad-blocking software: what a terrible idea—if you are a media company. The handwringing about ad blocking happened largely behind closed doors until Apple announced the enhancement as part of its new mobile-platform operating system.
Don’t worry. This post is not to announce a Kickstarter or other hustle for cash.
Why do I care? Apps, software—none of this is my usual journalistic bailiwick. I can’t argue if you say I have no business writing about such things. Except the media business is my business. I care about how journalism is paid for since it pays (sorta) the bills.
Why should you care? Advertising underwrites journalism more than it ever has—yet its not nearly enough to support robust reporting, investigative journalism, or even a modicum of thoroughness. That’s because advertisers no longer need to attach themselves to media to find customers. There are so many ways they can reach us through the Internet, computers, and mobile devices that the idea of an advertisement running atop or next to journalistic “content” almost feels quaint. This means that advertisers are not willing to pay much, indeed are willing to pay only a fraction of what ads cost in creaky old print (which seem still to have more impact). Which is why print still exists.
The fact that a viable business model for writers, musicians, videographers, and authors—“content creators” in today’s arid lexicon—still doesn’t exist two decades after the Internet invaded our lives remains of concern mainly to creators and their corporate masters. Though the slow-motion collapse of journalism should concern all of us.
And yet the publishers and producers have not been able to come up with a viable media-business model. They simply lurch from fad to fad. The flavor of the month is concocting content so alluring that it accumulates eyeballs (which is you, the reader or “content consumer”) by the millions, which advertisers, it is thought, will pay lavishly for. This Darwinian formulation may intermittently work for Kardashians, Desperate Housewives franchises, and news fraudsters of various kinds, but not for anyone else.
I have asked myself over the years, why we writers let the suits infantilize us, as if we had no idea how to make media a business.
So I have devised an app. Remember newsstands and paper boys who hawked headlines on street corners? Perhaps you are too young. But those quarters and dollars from newsstand sales were once a considerable percentage of the revenues of print media. For a long time that model didn’t find a place on the Internet.
Now it can, but it isn’t. You can download songs for 99 cents and pay for a coffee with one touch of your mobile device. If you want to read a story in the Wall Street Journal, though, you must (under most circumstances) subscribe: fill out forms, provide credit-card info. That cuts out all the people who want to read an article of interest and would be willing to pay a modest sum, but do not want to subscribe.
Of course, most newspapers, magazines, video sites, blogs (including this one) don’t charge at all, which is the road to economic ruin.
Why leave all that money on the table?
So I proposed an app that would allow one-click payment to read/listen to/view web-hosted content. The app would link to your Apple Pay, PayPal, or whatever-pay—the equivalent of tossing the newsboy a quarter for your daily newspaper, or grabbing a magazine from the newsstand on the way to the bus.
The idea is to ease the impulse purchase of content. Publishers would harvest payments from casual consumers. You will pay for valued content if it is easy, inexpensive, and fast. You wouldn’t have to share information with the seller; you wouldn’t have to endure an annoying sign-up process which will fill your email inbox with junk. You don’t have to go to Apple or Amazon to buy a news story or podcast.
I took my business plan to some people who understand the nature of such a startup business better than I could. Here are the various reasons they all considered it a non-starter.
—“There’s not enough money in it for the publisher.” How do they know? Does anyone track the number of people who hit a “pay wall” (the electronic door slammed in your face when you seek content without subscribing)?
—“It’s too complicated to accept small payments.” Yet restaurants use apps to divide-up restaurant checks among diners and Uber accepts small payments from thousands of drivers.
—“If successful, it’s an idea that’s too easy to steal.” I’d have to come up with the secret killer app within the killer app.
—“If successful, something like Spotify (which slaughtered iTunes) will come along and undercut you.” That, admittedly, is a toughie. It’s hard to herd artists and publishers into a payment format where they have some control over the selling price.
—“You have no idea how to build an app.” True.
I could find the right partners, make this happen, and retire a rich man. Why are publishers not doing this? Though I have many skills, I have regrettably concluded that becoming the kind of obsessive 24/7 entrepreneur such a project demands is not me.
So I’m giving the idea away! Go ahead, run with it; you just have to name it after me, or send a hefty check sometime, or put me on your board right before you achieve unicorn (look it up) status.
Maybe it’s a lousy idea. But who has got a good one for making journalism and similar enterprises a profitmaking proposition? I see nothing on the horizon.