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.
It’s a great idea. And I am so tired of the naysayers! I tried a similar thing with an app idea, and I wasted months trying to communicate with app builders, all to no avail. What’s missing in the world is a company that makes conversations between creative thinkers like us and app builders possible.
BTW: it’s not a lousy idea. You haven’t had a lousy idea in your whole life.
Jamie Katz says
Completely agree about the need to find a new formula for financing robust journalism and “content creation” (I hate the term, too!).
Actually, a tantalizing idea similar to yours has been around for a while: digital micropayments—a kind of toll road for news consumers. And, as you would expect, the pros and cons have spurred vigorous debate. Here are two recent pieces of interest, à propos:
I’m rooting hard for this idea—or some variation of it—to take root.
Philip wagner says
i much prefer the old street corner news stand, or the tabac-traffic, where one can see all kinds of magazines, papers, buy bus token, cigarettes, condoms, chewing gum, soda, umbrellas, aspirin and just about anything you might need.
screw all this electronic stuff
Rory Stott says
James, thank you so much for offering out this idea. You’re right that getting people to pay for quality journalism is an intractable problem that noone seems to be doing anything about, so I hope this idea gains some ground. It’s one I’ve genuinely had myself for a while, but like you I’ve had no idea how to get started with it.
I figure, though, if Facebook and Apple can get big publishers like the NYT to agree to publish on a closed platform (with, as far as I can see, almost no incentive), then why can’t a startup with a solid money-spinning plan do the same?
Here are some thoughts I’ve had about my own “version” of this app, like James if anyone is interested you can have them for free:
– This idea could work equally well as an app which pulls articles onto its own platform (as I believe James is proposing) or as a plugin to your desktop browser which – with the support of publishers – could gain bypass the paywall on publishers’ sites. Add up the number of times the plugin has bypassed a paywall in a month and use it to calculate total money owed by the app to the publisher.
– You could offer subscriptions (so people sign up to say $10 of articles a month and then they’re cut off) or pay-as-you-go models, or some combination of both
– Different publishers will probably want to set price points at different levels; then they will probably want to set different levels for different types of articles within an organization. This could be simplified by converting users’ subscriptions into credits (say 1 credit=$0.25) where a local news report costs the user 1 credit while a New Yorker essay costs 10. For publishers who use categories or tags for different types of article, these could be easily tied to the correct price point.
– maybe this is something that could be pitched as a new venture to a startup which already has some clout, such as Instapaper, to smooth the process.
James, I hope this idea takes off. God knows it’s something publishers need, but as more publishers paywall their content it’s something that readers will increasingly find useful.
PS – I say this as an editor for a website that is – and is committed to always being – free to readers.
Sonya Mann says
This exists — it’s called Blendle. Should be coming to the US relatively soon.
Rory Stott says
Sonya, thank you for this info! I’ll be watching Blendle with interest. And if they can get the right architecture publications on board I’ll sign up in a heartbeat.
James Russell says
thanks for these helpful comments. I’m glad lots of people are thinking along the same lines. I’ll keep you posted.