Towards Tablets And Paying For Content

Below are the Dish’s posts following the shifting media landscape towards digital-only and/or tablets, as well as the continuing rise of paywalls and meters and whether readers will pay for content.

Thu Oct 18, 2012 – 11.08pm:

Out Of The Ashes Of Dead Trees

The shift in my own mind has happened gradually. Even up to a year ago, I was still getting my New York Times every morning on paper, wrapped in blue plastic. Piles of them would sit in my blog-cave, read and half-read, skimmed, and noted.

Until a couple of years ago, I also read physical books on paper, and then shifted to cheaper, easier, lighter tablet versions. Then it became a hassle to get the physical NYT delivered in Provincetown so I tried a summer of reading it on a tablet. I now tablet_1read almost everything on my iPad. And as I ramble down the aisle of Amtrak’s Acela, I see so many reading from tablets or laptops, with the few newspapers and physical magazines seeming almost quaint, like some giant brick of a mobile phone from the 1980s. Almost no one under 30 is reading them. One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle. Part of me has come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd. They are like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is vast and steep.

Which is why, when asked my opinion at Newsweek about print and digital, I urged taking the plunge as quickly as possible. Look: I chose  digital over print 12 years ago, when I shifted my writing gradually online, with this blog and now blogazine. Of course a weekly newsmagazine on paper seems nuts to me. But it takes guts to actually make the change. An individual can, overnight. An institution is far more cumbersome. Which is why, I believe, institutional brands will still be at a disadvantage online compared with personal ones. There’s a reason why Drudge Report and the Huffington Post are named after human beings. It’s because when we read online, we migrate to read people, not institutions. Social media has only accelerated this development, as everyone with a Facebook page now has a mini-blog, and articles or posts or memes are sent by email or through social networks or Twitter.

And as magazine stands disappear as relentlessly as bookstores, I also began to wonder what a magazine really is. Can it even exist online? It’s a form that’s only really been around for three centuries – and it was based on a group of people associating with each other under a single editor and bound together with paper and staples. At The New Republic in the 1990s, I knew intuitively that most people read TRB, the Diarist and the Notebook before they dug into a 12,000 word review of a book on medieval Jewish mysticism. But they were all in it together. You couldn’t just buy Kinsley’s perky column. It came physically attached to Leon Wieseltier’s sun-blocking ego.

But since every page on the web is now as accessible as every other page, how do you connect writers together with paper and staples, instead of having readers pick individual writers or pieces and ignore the rest? And the connection between writers and photographers and editors is what a magazine is. It defines it – and yet that connection is now close to gone. Around 70 percent of Dish readers have this page bookmarked and come to us directly. (If you read us all the time and haven’t, please do). You can’t sell bundles anymore; and online, it’s hard to sell anything intangible, i.e. words, because the supply is infinite. You no longer control the gate through which readers have to pass and advertizers get to sponsor. No gateway, no magazine, no revenue – and massive costs in print, paper and mailing.

I know a bit about these things, having edited a weekly magazine on paper for five years and running this always-on blogazine for twelve. It’s a different universe now. And to me, the Beast’s decision to put Newsweek Global on a tablet and kill the print edition is absolutely the right one. To do it now also makes sense. To have done it two years ago would have been even better. Why wait?

[I]f print is a money-loser — and I keep hearing that is is, for newspaper after newspaper — why not end it now, today, and go purely digital? Why shouldn’t newspapers around the world, or at least in the most internet-saturated parts of the world, just stop the presses — especially if they know they’ll have to do it anyway, and in the meantime the cash is draining away? What are the restraining factors? Habit and tradition? Powerful executives who have known the print world for so long that they can’t imagine life without it? The half-conscious feeling that paper and ink are real in ways that pixels and bits are not, and that if you only have pixels and bits you might as well be just a blogger, without a saleable product you can hold in your hand? This inquiring mind really, really wants to know.

That’s Alan Jacobs with whom I heartily agree. The reason is that these huge corporations, massive newsrooms, and deeply ingrained advertizing strategies become interests in themselves. No institution wants to dissolve itself. Getting that old mindset to accept that everything that it has done as a business and editorial model is now over, pffft, gone, is very, very hard. But they often cannot adjust because they are too big to move so quickly and because new sources of information and new flows of information keep evolving, and because no one really wants change if it means more job insecurity. We’re human. It’s not pleasant realizing that the entire business and editorial model for your entire career is kaput.

But that doesn’t mean the end of journalism, just of the physical objects that convey journalism. The “media” is simply Latin for the way in which information is transmitted. It’s the way one idea or fact or non-fact goes from someone’s brain into another’s. Today journalism is consumed by people at work, like you, reading to stave off boredom, or following an election, or because they love a particular site, or just find it productive, ahem, to check out the latest meme or cool video or righteous rant online. Then we watch TV, but not the nightly news, apart from the older generations. The generations below mine get their news online all day long and through Stewart/Colbert. The other way of reading is leaning back, enjoying long-form journalism or non-fiction in book or essay form – at the weekend or in the evenings or on a plane. And the tablet is so obviously a more varied, portable, simple vehicle to deliver a group of writers tied together in one actual place, which cannot be disaggregated, than paper, print and staples. And far less expensive. Print magazines today are basically horses and carriages, a decade after the car had gone into mass production. Why the fuck do they exist at all, except as lingering objects of nostalgia?

So this is a radical change and will be wrenching in transition, but is actually essential to saving the journalism we still need:

It is important that we underscore what this digital transition means and, as importantly, what it does not. We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it. We remain committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents. This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism—that is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.

“Challenging” is a euphemism for impossible. Maybe a couple of magazines will survive in print as status symbols at the high end, or as supermarket check-out tabloids at the lower stratosphere. But I doubt even that. Tablet subscriptions seem to me the only viable way forward. The good news is that the savings from this can be plowed back into journalism if revenues from subs and ads revive. In the end, the individual who will decide if magazines survive at all, even on tablets, will be readers, and their willingness to pay for writing in that form, when they go online and get it for free. Yep, it’s up to you. And all your invisible hands.

Fri Oct 19, 2012 – 11.23am:

A reader writes:

There are two reasons I buy print magazines: takeoff and landing.


The only time I read physical magazines it is at the doctor or the dentist. And I will miss that. And I don’t see them providing tablets, and I don’t see myself bringing a tablet to the dentist or doctor.  So what are you going to do at the doctors office, talk to strangers?

Read a magazine on your phone instead. Another:

What I’d like to see come out of the Newsweek announcement is a publication that, freed from the constraints of a printing business unit, helps bring about realistic subscription rates for digital content.  Far too many of the mainstream magazines I read will charge me $20-$25 to read it on my iPad, OR will charge $12-$15 (less if it’s on sale) for a print subscription, incurring expenses for printing and delivery, and then give me digital access for free.


As an industry, newspapers aren’t money losers.  They’re in huge decline and deep in the crapper but still profitable, just without the margins and bottom lines of old.  Their reluctance to transition to a pure digital play – to turn off the presses – is that there is no model on the digital side that will give them the same (reduced) revenues or profits.  Yes, they could eliminate all the expenses of the physical paper, but there’s no advertising model online that will replace the dollars they can bring in, even now, with an ink-on-paper ad.  That’s not for much longer, so they worry, but it’s not going away today, so they dither.

A reader from the industry elaborates on that view:

I’m the editor of a print newspaper who finds himself defending the existence of such an anachronistic thing to people all the time. It’s difficult, because for all the reasons you laid out, print needs to shift to a focus of 100 percent modern technology, but there are still reasons why it hasn’t.

To answer your (completely valid) question, “Why the fuck do they exist at all, except as lingering objects of nostalgia?”, I can only say that nobody I know in my business is printing newspapers and magazines out of nostalgia. I enjoy picking up the New York Times, but I don’t think that enjoyment is any reason to stick with what has become a bad business model.

The problem is this: advertisers don’t agree. I don’t know how much of this you saw when you were editing the print magazine, but right now, advertisers don’t place anywhere near as much stock in advertising online as they do in print. This is the key issue upon which the entire future of the industry is predicated. Printing and delivery costs are high, sure, but they pale in comparison to the cost of paying people to produce the news itself, and that won’t go away. That means that cutting the printing+delivery piece out of the overhead isn’t going to solve the problem. There needs to be more revenue online, and until advertisers see the value of 225 square pixels on a website being equal in value to three square inches in a newspaper or magazine, print will still exist in its slow, tumbling decline.


Absolutely loved your post on Newsweek‘s news. But I was wondering whether you are worried about online content being so driven by clicks and page views. The Huffington Post seems to be illustrative and one of the worst offenders here. Just teeming with “click bait” (typical headline: “She did WHAT?!”); short, uninformative blurbs, and pointless slideshows at the end of every article (with each click through the slideshow generating a juicy new data point). Digital is clearly the future, but I don’t want my online content to be sliced and diced so as to inflate the perception of reader engagement to advertisers.

Me neither. One more from “an old newsman who thinks newspapers deserve to die but shouldn’t”:

Newsweek is right to go all-digital. It was either that or die. Too bad daily newspapers will never understand Newsweek‘s lesson until it’s too late. Except for a few super-papers like the NYT or WSJ or USA Today, most newspapers will never pull the trigger and go all or even 80 percent digital. They’ll be printing on paper and shrinking their staffs and their news coverage until the last 80-year-old subscriber on the Daily Titanic dies.

It a cultural thing – the managers of papers still don’t get it. Old Newspaper hands who can’t change or adapt, they still hate the Web, still don’t understand it, still don’t know how to exploit its awesome efficiencies and powers. They still don’t trust their writers/reporters, still don’t like their readers’ tastes or values or judgment, hate bloggers more than they hate incessant letter-to-the-editor writers and still have a top-down, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-import attitude that despises the democratization of news and commentary that digital has wrought.

They won’t change their reporting methods – but every reporter should have a an iPhone, a laptop and no desk at the office. They should be out in the community they are supposed to be covering, blogging and taking pictures all day for the website until a plane crashes into the nearby local school or the local oil refinery blows. Then they should report the story ASAP – beating TV and radio to the punch and going deeper and wider on the story.

Newspapers have not been perfect or even honorable, god knows. But if they die before they figure out digital, and figure out a business model that works, their communities will suffer.

Mon Dec 3, 2012 – 1.22pm:

The Daily Is Dead

The iPad-only newspaper is folding on December 15th:

The project needed about 500,000 subscribers to break even, and did not get a chance to come close, hovering around 120,000 weekly readers last year, while opting not to say how many people were actually paying subscribers.

Will Oremus thinks it never made any sense:

The Daily missed the whole point of digital publication, which is that you can reach a vast, worldwide audience across a wide array of platforms without having to design entirely separate products for each one. It’s one thing for general-interest magazines like Slate, Salon, Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post to do away with the huge costs and constraints of a print product. Once you’ve done that, narrowing your focus to a single device limits your audience far more sharply than it limits your expenses.

Yglesias has a different perspective. He looks at “Marco Arment’s new startup, The Magazine, which is an iOS exclusive that’s simply operating on a much smaller scale with lower costs than The Daily”:

From Arment’s perspective, one advantage to going iOS exclusive that he alluded to in a recent podcast is that as an app maker you want to make apps that Apple wants to promote. By going exclusive, you give up some revenue opportunity, but you not only simplify your own business, you hope to attract some marketing cross-subsidy from Apple. But this is a strategy that doesn’t really scale very well. The Daily was far too big and ambitious to be getting so little from exclusivity. But exclusivity itself isn’t a crazy idea; it’s just that you’d need to be attracting a large cross-subsidy for it to make sense.

Elsewhere, The Awl just launched a subscription-based weekly for iPad and iPhone.

Tue Dec 4, 2012 – 3.18pm:

Freddie DeBoer sees the e-newspaper’s demise as part of a bigger problem:

Why would people think that you could have a viable media business model while catering only to people who own iPads? Because our media world is made up of people from a particular social and cultural class. … As such, they’ll be lacking an important perspective, which is what the world looks like outside of the narrow slice of educated digitally-connected strivers who write the Internet. It’s the most consistent and determinative aspect of our media: it’s a homogenous group that fancies itself diverse and thus cannot see how incredibly out of touch it is with how most people live. I invite reporters to come here to Lafayette Indiana and ask around at the Village Pantry about the demise of The Daily.

Felix Salmon is in the same ballpark:

As far as news and journalism are concerned, the verdict is in: tablets aren’t a new medium which will support a whole new class of publications — there’s almost nothing you can do well on a tablet that you can’t just put on a website and ask people to read in a browser. Publications of the future will put their content online, and will go to great lengths to ensure that it looks fantastic when viewed on a tablet. But the tablet is basically just one of many ways to see material which exists on the internet; it’s not a place to put stuff which can’t be found anywhere else.

I’m not so sure for a simple reason.

I think long-form journalism works best on a tablet, while shorter forms perform better on desktops or laptops – often at work. The tablet is, for me, at least, about reading in a different way at a different time – in the evening or weekend, when you do not want to know the latest ripples on the news pond, but when you feel like a deep dive into a long essay or a book or a sustained piece of long-form reporting. It’s a device for the long-attention span. Joshua Gans pushes back as well:

[D]oes this mean that news on tablets isn’t the way of the future? Felix Salmon seems to believe so but I think he is wrong. Tablets are great for reading in the way webpages are not. You just have to get the interface right as Macro Arment among others have learned. Readers want text and there is a place for that. The hard thing is to mix text with a good browsing experience to find what you want to read. The Daily presumed you wanted to read something or flip. For the rest of us, how to find what to read is still the challenge. Someone will solve it for me and others will solve it for other people. But solutions will be found.

Jack Shafer’s bottom line:

The Daily demonstrates for the umpteenth million time that big media isn’t very good at creating new publications, be they new magazines, new newspapers, or new Web sites. Most big media operations have come to accept this, and instead of creating new properties they acquire them. So today, let’s both toast and damn Rupert Murdoch for trying but not trying hard enough to make something new, valuable, and profitable on the Web.

Mon Dec 10, 2012 – 1.18pm:

Will Readers Finally Pay For Content?


Ryan Chittum makes the case for online subscriptions:

Digital subscriptions are an incremental source of revenue at a time when newspapers are bleeding to death and digital ads are bringing in four bucks a CPM. They won’t succeed everywhere, particularly at newspapers that have gutted their newsrooms, and they’re not enough on their own to assure we have robust news coverage. But it’s money on the table that newspapers can’t reject hoping for some nebulous future “free” innovation, which not one of 1,500 American newspapers has yet to find in some 17 years of the Web era.

He also makes a key distinction between a paywall and a meter, which allows a substantial amount of content to remain free and determined by individual readers: “a meter model preserves almost all traffic—and thus, ad revenue— by allowing casual readers to visit 10 or 20 times a month while charging core readers for access.” Steve Buttry has more:

The alternative to paywalls is not reliance on CPM ads. As I replied to an anonymous CJR commenter claiming to be a Times staffer, I have blogged about plentiful new ideas for revenue that newspapers have not sufficiently tried yet. And others, such as Jeff Jarvis and Steve Outinghave suggested plans such as a reverse meter or membership that I think have notably greater potential than paywalls.

News came out Friday that the WaPo is leaning toward a meter, to be begin some time next year. WaPo blogger Ezra Klein is a buzzkill:

I wish I was half as confident about the potential of paywalls as the evangelists over at the Columbia Journalism Review, but I’m not. I think paywalls might well prove a disaster for The Washington Post, and for many others. I don’t envy my bosses their jobs.

The Beast is also flirting with the meter idea. The Economist’s take:

[I]t has also become clear that digital advertising dollars will never offset what newspapers are losing in print advertising—which is why papers want to be less dependent on ad revenue. Advertising, which is high-margin, has historically contributed around 80% of American newspapers’ revenues, far more than in most other countries. This is changing, mostly because advertising has slid so far. In the third quarter the New York Times earned more than 55% of its revenues from circulation, compared with only 29% in 2001. Newspaper bosses say they are moving their papers to a model where they get half their revenues from advertising and half from circulation.

Some parallels from history:

Gordon Borrell of Borrell Associates, a consultancy, thinks that newspapers are in a similar situation to radio in the 1950s. When television became popular, many advertisers fled, much as they did from print after the internet arrived. But within several years some returned to radio and ad revenues stabilised at a lower level [chart].

Hamilton Nolan offers a reality check, noting that “paywalls will work for content that is worth paying for” but also “the fact that readers like you is not enough to support an online paywall; readers must need you.” And he believes many will never be able to adapt:

Examples of media outlets than cannot support paywalls: mediocre or shitty newspapers that have decimated their newsrooms, shitty magazines with little quality content, sites full of mostly opinions and listicles and other entertaining but easily reproduced things of that nature, most blogs.

But Nolan adds that new media are better positioned than legacy media:

For media outlets that grew up online, this dynamic should not be a huge problem. Those outlets have always supported themselves with online ad revenue; they grow in response to the money they make. The problem comes for media outlets that either A) matured in print form, and swelled to huge and bloated proportions, and then, when print collapsed, found themselves trying to somehow stuff that huge, bloated operation into a sleek online casing; or B) media outlets that were founded with a big pile of money from investors, and grew bloated on that, rather than on revenue they actually earned; and when that money dried up, they found that they had all these people they needed to pay, but no real revenue.

(Chart from Mark Perry)

Mon Dec 10, 2012 – 3.34pm:


Rod Dreher, for one, isn’t buying the WaPo’s subscription strategy:

[I] visit its site multiple times per day, and often come away with articles to link to and comment on. Would I pay for it? No, I wouldn’t. If I lived in Washington, or wrote mostly about politics on this blog, I would. But I live in Louisiana, and besides, I already pay a lot of money to subscribe to a quality national newspaper, The New York Times. I keep going back and forth about whether to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal’s digital edition, because I love the Weekend Review section so much. The problem is that subscribing to the Times costs over $400 a year. Do I have an extra $300 lying around to subscribe to the Journal too? I do not. It has to be one or the other. I need to rethink which one it’s going to be. One reason I’ve stuck with the Times is that it’s much easier to use their links in this blog.

One of Dreher’s readers would prefer being freed from such choice:

[I] would appreciate many more paywalled sites. It would give me my life back… There is too much I like to read (and actually very little that I could not live without and thus would pay)…

TNC, unlike Dreher,”read[s] the Post online enough to say that I would pay for this”. But:

The problem with the Post is that the paper has been so decimated that you wonder whether they still have a product they can sell. I wonder if the Post basically got it backwards–they tried to save by cutting, but in cutting damaged the product (and the brand), and now the Post is trying to get people pay a much less substantial product. It seems it would have been smarter to charge when you had something you knew you could charge for.

David Carr’s inimitable take on the move toward subscriptions:

Behind the pay wall is a more loyal customer, one that a publisher has a deeper relationship with and can sell to at a premium. It is, in a sense, a renewal of the now-ancient magazine concept of “wantedness.” Magazines charged more for their customers because they had chosen to subscribe. And you can’t buy the audience that paid to read, say,, anywhere but

It’s been a weird evolution to watch. Pay walls, long the bête noir of evangelists of a free and open Internet, are almost sexy right now. Many of the experiments — and that’s really what they are — are bound to have brutal results. On a practical level, a subscription is both a convenience charge and a measure of the size of the core following for a given publication on the Web.

More food for thought from Emma Goodman:

Making readers pay more for content is a good start, but will it prove good enough? As the Tow report also notes, news organisations have always been subsidized in some way: selling journalism has never on its own comprised a business model. Digital distribution is undoubtedly cheaper than print distribution so means that circulation revenue can go further towards the cost of sustaining the newsroom, but further innovation in terms of bringing in revenue will be needed for many news organisations to survive.

Stay tuned. My overall thoughts on the subject are here.

Tue Dec 11, 2012 – 12:50pm:

We started debating the question here and here. Readers chime in:

I’ve long wondered why I can’t go to the New York Times website and pay a small amount for a digital edition of that day’s paper that would be mine forever. In other words, why can’t newspapers and magazines work online like they used to (and still do, to some extent) at the newsstand? Apparently NYT does this on Kindle already, for 99 cents. Why not for every platform? I want my 99 cent NYT pdf! I want an iTunes store for news! Who’s with me?


Why not a system in which each URL contains a pay code so that when you open the page you are charged a very small fee to read the article? I’m thinking a fraction of a penny that would come out of an online coin purse that would never contain more than say $20 so that even if you’re hacked, you wouldn’t lose much. My transit pass deducts money from my account, why can’t someone devise a simple online, automatic pay system?

If I paid between a tenth of a cent and a half a cent per article or post, I’d be paying about what I used to pay per day for a printed newspaper. The writer or company they work for would get this fee for the work, regardless of where the story appears. It would support independent journalism and avoid the situation we face now over an expensive paywall for, say, the New York Times. I love the Times, but it’s not my local paper and I have zero interest in paying the sums they’re asking just to read a Times article every few days.

Another also likes the idea of micropayments:

But what would be the billing mechanism for such small sums?

I think of how I pay to cross toll bridges here in the San Francisco area.  I buy an EZ Pass for $30 with a credit card account. Every time I cross a bridge, the toll is deducted from my EZ Pass balance, and when the balance gets low, my EZ Pass account is automatically topped up from my credit card.

I visit many websites in search of information.  I wouldn’t want to be setting up multiple “EZ News” accounts, particularly when the incremental deductions from each account would be so small.  I am thinking that news and opinion websites could form a payment consortium: I could buy website clicks ahead of time from the group operation, and for each click I made on a website, the owner of the site would be credited with the click fee, and it would be deducted from my balance.  As my balance got close to zero, my balance could be topped up from my credit card.  That way, I’d be paying only for what I wanted to read, it wouldn’t be a burdensome expense, and the news organizations would be getting an income.  Perhaps not as much per reader as they would through a paywall, but with more readers, the micro payments could add up to approximate the paywall income.  Just a thought …

More thoughts from a micropayment fan:

I think what David Carr missed about the advocates of a free and open Internet is that the argument isn’t about payment as a whole, but how certain methods of payment run counter to how the Internet is used.  Put simply, people still surf.  They sample from different sources because those sources have different parts that fit into variety of bubbles.

The thing that I most like about services like Crunchyroll and Netflix is how much content gets provided for me at a low price.  Sure, there’s a lot missing, and much of the available material isn’t that good, but the same can be said for newspapers.  Thus, when I think about paying for a newspaper, the decision is going to be made based on how much quality product vs. total shit, in my opinion, I’m going to be getting.

Having a service that offers access to a lot papers at an affordable price is much more enticing and better fits actual surfing habits, especially after the guttings of the cost-cutting periods.  This could be accomplished by paying a wholesaler or using a microtransaction model that uses a Paypal-like service as the payment method and works like EZ-Pass for the PA Turnpike that can be used on highways in other states.

We’ll see, but I don’t see paywalls becoming the long-term solution to this issue.

Wed Dec 12, 2012 – 2.41pm:

A reader writes:

The problem with micropayments is that users hate them, probably because they don’t want to continually make a decision about whether a not a purchase is worth making.  That is why many systems that used to use micropayments, like Internet usage (remember hourly fees?), have moved over to simpler pricing schemes.  The things that still use micropayments, like utilities or toll roads, tend to be monopolies that (1) do not turn much of a profit and (2) are disliked by the people that use them.  To put in some realistic numbers, if the NYT charges about $10/month for ~100 articles, do you really want to make the judgement call about whether any particular headline is worth a dime?


Way back in 2000, Clay Shirky predicted that micropayments wouldn’t work way, and I’m pretty sure by now he is right or somebody would have done it.

Wed Dec 12, 2012 – 11.21am:

Can Tablet-Only Journalism Work?

John Gruber believes so:

When it comes to media, what strikes many as The Daily’s cardinal sin is eschewing the open Web for the closed garden of a subscriber-only iOS app. The idea being that you can’t win without a web-first strategy. But that’s what “everyone” said about social networks too — until Instagram came along and became a sensation with an iPhone-only strategy.

Felix Salmon is skeptical:

[W]e’re going to see universal journalism, which can be accessed — and possibly edited — in different ways on different devices. It might be free on the web, for instance, while costing a couple of bucks in the form of a simple iOS app. Maybe it will only be available on iOS, but for business-model reasons, not because it couldn’t work on the web. Or maybe, as in the case of Matter, it will be available in any format you like, for a single flat price.

Wed Dec 12, 2012 – 2.41pm:

Will Readers Finally Pay For Content? Ctd

A reader writes:

The problem with micropayments is that users hate them, probably because they don’t want to continually make a decision about whether a not a purchase is worth making.  That is why many systems that used to use micropayments, like Internet usage (remember hourly fees?), have moved over to simpler pricing schemes.  The things that still use micropayments, like utilities or toll roads, tend to be monopolies that (1) do not turn much of a profit and (2) are disliked by the people that use them.  To put in some realistic numbers, if the NYT charges about $10/month for ~100 articles, do you really want to make the judgement call about whether any particular headline is worth a dime?


Way back in 2000, Clay Shirky predicted that micropayments wouldn’t work way, and I’m pretty sure by now he is right or somebody would have done it.

Thu Dec 13, 2.40pm:

Hamish McKenzie checks in on the growing micropayment “ecosystem”, including news that Kids filmmaker Larry Clark, following the lead of comedians like Louis C.K., will use the micropayment service TinyPass to stream his next film directly to fans. And others are experimenting as well:

In October [we] reported a story about a freelance journalist in New Zealand who, rather than solicit a publishing fee, asked for donations for a story he posted to a blog. While a magazine might have paid him about $500, the donations he earned via brought him in about $5,000. Also in October, Vimeo launched a tip jar, allowing viewers to pay whatever they want to filmmakers who choose to enable the feature. Vimeo will soon also launch a Tinypass-like pay-to-view feature.

Micropayments could also grow hand-in-hand with micropublishing, a trend that is moving beyond blogging and into self-produced digital magazines. One soon-to-be startup, The Periodical, will in the next few days launch a tool that lets individuals publish and monetize magazines across digital platforms with the same ease as starting a blog.

Fri Dec 14, 2012 – 7.34am:

A reader writes:

Contrary to what a number of your readers have said, micropayment systems exist on the Internet.  iTunes has a micropayment system, as does Skype.  In both cases you have to prepay and have a credit in your account.  I have always thought that micropayments for Internet content is an obvious new business foe Skype.  I am sure that a system could be worked out for content providers to register with Skype with a portion of the revenues going to Skype and the balance to the content providers.

Another outlines “two fundamental problems that need to be addressed before paying for content at reasonable rates can come about”:

1) Readers won’t pay upfront. Think of it like busking: The performer doesn’t pass the hat until the show is well underway. Any sooner and it feels – to the audience, at least – like begging. That’s not so much of a problem for known commodities like the Washington Post or New York Times. Not only have their readers been reflexively paying for the hard copy for living memory, they also have a huge cachet trade on.

2) Readers can’t pay a little. Due to the way online payments are handled, it’s practically impossible to create a micropayment system without entirely subverting the major credit card companies and banks. They will not support such an effort, except under their own terms, and right now the cost of change is greater than the cost of continuing their existing business model.

But other models are possible.

Let’s throw away the “box of writers” approach to content development and try a thought experiment: Why not leverage wit and intelligence, popularity, news … all the things that make a piece worth reading, but mix them more tightly into the warp and the weft of our online existence? Knowing what we do about human nature, what’s to stop someone from creating a social networking service that operates using cash as a measure of social connectedness and influence?

The mechanism would be simple enough. Members join for a nominal fee, not high enough to be painful, but enough so that someone would have to make a deliberate decision to join. It would have to be enough that, for many, peer pressure would be necessary to drive them into the fold. Once there, an algorithm would identify the most connected, popular and useful writers of the community and award them a share of the pot. Call it a Social Credit Union. (More on this idea here.)

Right, you’re probably thinking: Exactly how many seconds would it take for someone to begin gaming the system for money? The answer is alarmingly simple: as long as people like something and/or find it interesting, who cares? As Randall Munro so aptly put it: “Mission. Fucking. Accomplished.”

Mon Dec 17, 2012 – 5.35pm:

Michael Meyer checks in on the e-singles marketplace:

E-singles typically sell for between $1.99 and $3.99, and you don’t have to be an accountant to realize it would take a lot of sales at that price to sustain even a modest business. “We don’t want the entire future of our business to rest on selling a million copies of something that costs $2,” [Atavist’s CEO and cofounder Evan] Ratliff says.

Byliner, meanwhile, is meeting that challenge head-on. An announcement about a big publishing partnership is due any day, and the company claims that it will sell “a million” copies of its Byliner Originals this year alone. While it originally published only nonfiction, Byliner has since expanded into both fiction and serials. From a journalistic perspective, one could almost think of these as Byliner’s version of ancillary revenue streams, but Byliner ceo John Tayman doesn’t see it that way. “Do you need a secondary revenue stream to make a business out of selling stories to readers?” Tayman asks. “No, you do not.”

Wed Dec 19, 2012 – 7.35am:

A reader keeps the discussion going:

I think the piece you’re missing from the equation are the advertisers themselves. For years they’ve counted on the interruptive model. And the advent of digital showed everyone how bogus those circulation numbers were. And quantitative metrics on engagement with display have shown how useless those units are.

But who says traditional media companies have to be the only ones publishing content? There’s a nascent brand journalism industry forming, with varying levels of sophistication and commercial intent. A lot of it is just brand and audience building. Bring in as many people as possible with content they would find entertaining elsewhere, but you don’t have to serve them any ads. Because the brand OWNS the page. ( and Unilever, and General Mills)

We’re still a long ways off from the quality of content a normal publisher can achieve – but how far out are we? A brand has the money to pay writers, and they’re not beholden to pageview models for revenue. Now, brands of course can’t be responsible for public service journalism, but they might be able to underwrite non-profits to cover government and industry. Or maybe not.

Fri Dec 21, 2012 – 3.05pm:

Derek Thompson notes that “in 2006, Google made $60 billion less than U.S. newspapers and magazines. Now it makes more ad money than all of U.S. print media combined“:

The scariest thing about the newspaper business is the idea that digital newspaper advertising is theoretically “alive” and “the future” even though it’s growing at 1/50th the pace of print’s decline. In the last five years, we’ve basically figured out one big thing about digital advertising — the power of search — while banner ads, native ads, and sponsored ads, and other non-search-advertising innovations haven’t been rich enough to pay for anything except the most shoe-string of journalism budgets. Basically, the digital ad business for newspapers stinks.

He also passes along Emma Gardner’s end-of-the-year roundup of charts that analyze digital publishing.

Mar 21, 2013 @ 10:39am

Will Readers Finally Pay For Content? Ctd

The latest attempt to crack the code on micropayments:

Len Kendall, co-founder of the new micro-payments platform [CentUp], reckons the problem isn’t so much that people don’t want to pay for things, but that they forget, it’s too much hassle, and the amounts involved are too big. CentUp, as the name suggests, deals in pennies. To give a few cents to your favorite blogger, all you do is click a little button and send the amount from a pre-charged account. … Half the money goes to charity, which provides extra incentive to pay the creators something, Kendall says. “Sometimes artists find it difficult to ask people to pay. So, we felt that if we built charity into the system, it’s easier for them to ask. They can say, ‘we’re giving half away.’”

Of course Amanda Palmer is already perfecting the art of asking. Money quote from Kendall:

“We think 2013 is really the time when people are going to start paying more for content. They are realising they don’t want to pay with their attention and advertising, and they don’t want to be behind paywalls. It’s a prime time to enable people to pay what they will.”

Previous Dish on micropayment efforts here.

Apr 3, 2013 @ 7:32am

by Chris Bodenner

A reader flags a promising story from across the Pond:

Considering what you’ve done with the Dish in recent months, this is right up your alley: in the Netherlands a new online “newspaper”, De Correspondent, crowd-funded over 1 million euros in a matter of days.

More details:

[Rob Wijnberg] needed 15.000 people to give him €60 a year for something that doesn’t exist yet — he succeeded within 8 days. His idea is called De Correspondent and its goal is to provide news in a different way. While traditional newspapers serve you daily hot news, Wijnberg says De Correspondent will be a new quality online “newspaper” which could be described as “slow journalism”. They’ll cover daily news and mix it with long-form journalism, providing in-depth analysis of news on a custom built platform.

On a much smaller scale and back on the homefront, a Tinypass-supported site called Bklynr recently met its own presubscription goal of $10K and is launching its first issue tomorrow. Every two weeks it will publish three long-form pieces about Brooklyn, for $20 a year (or $2 month). The broader thread on paid content is here. How it relates to the Dish model is here.