Over recent months, I have watched the slow and painful implosion of my profession. The media industry was in steep decline before the bottom fell out of the market; and with recession-era marketing budgets now in full retreat, the happy marriage of advertising and editorial has entered its death spiral. Many magazines have folded; whole newspaper chains shut down. There is less money available for freelance writers–there are fewer pages for to fill, and fewer assignments to go around.
Readers are abandoning print newspapers in droves, preferring to pluck their bulletins and analysis via any manner of friend feeds, and preferring not to pay for it. Audiences have become immune to advertising–in a saturated atmosphere of 24/7 persuasive messages, we have by practical necessity turned ourselves into human TiVos. We dislike the old "one-way model" of media serving audience, opting instead for dynamic conversation in specialized forums a mile wide and an inch deep.
Big Media, it seems, is toast, and though the replacement model has yet to emerge, everyone has a theory about what it might look like. Including me.
I believe citizen journalists have a role to play in the new world. But they will not likely spend two months working a complex piece, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, tracking down sources who don’t want to talk right away, or aren’t easy to find. These are the stories that just don’t happen with a Google search, a Wiki graft, and a couple phone calls. This kind of work is now and will remain the domain of the professional journalist.
But is the term becoming an oxymoron? It’s good work, but who is footing the bill.
I believe people are reluctant to pay for this so-called "premium content" on the Web today because the infrastructure does not yet exist for them to do so without the tedium of passwords, memberships, cookies, popups, and endless logins to remember and forget. At present, online newspapers ask me to pay a blanket fee for access to a whole paper, when 98.9 percent of the content (picture advertiser-driven dreck like "Homes" or "Wheels") does not interest me. I believe people will pay a modest amount — a micropayment of perhaps .
$0.25 or so — what we used to pay for newspapers when we still bought them — for a single original story so long as it delivers strong value, and so long as it can be done securely with one button, one click, and so long as it goes straight into the hands of the writer.
I suspect pro-journalists will become free agents who carry with them a verifiable credibility ranking, much like sellers on eBay. They might work for umbrella brands that vet their credibility and deliver a broad audience base in exchange for a modest fee of some kind. And they will collect payments directly from their individual readers, a few quarters at a time, nothing much in small amounts, but depending on the impact and spread of the piece, it could be significant enough to sustain the writer. Consumers will pay for a great story or column if if means they only have to fork over $0.35 or $0.50 cents or so, and provided there is a seamless, hassle-free, transparent instant mechanism that allows them to do it, while the impulse is there. That mechanism might be as simple as a button on a browser or embedded in a web page: "Send .50 to this Writer."
There are snags with this, of course. Writers might be vulnerable to corruption, receiving micropayments from corporations angling for a more favorable follow-up piece. That happens today with press junkets, swag, and similar thinly veiled bribes. But that’s where the credibility ranking and transparency comes in. For the micropayment to work, you’d need to show browsers all the contributions to date, the amounts and the sources. If anything looks unusually large or out of place, the collective would quickly sniff it out. You know how much a writer has made on a story, and where the money came from. Total transparency.
Someone out there has probably already floated this scheme. If so, let me know below. It can’t work right now, but it might be within reach within a few years. Maybe…?
01.01.09 Update : Spot.us is in the ballpark, an "open-source project to pioneer community funded reporting" in the San Francisco Bay Area. Worth a look to see how they are doing it.
Typewriter key image by Emdot .