Having just polished off this week's TIME cover story on a proposal to keep newspapers and media organizations financially solvent, I felt compelled to pose this question to The Notebook readership: What are we worth to you?
We, meaning, the political press corps of Missouri. Or on a broader level: Any type of journalism you consume during the day online. If a price tag was placed on the journalism you consume, would you pay for it --- or bypass it?
The quick answer might be to point to the failed experiment of the subscriber-only K.C. Buzz Blog -- but that approach just might be part of the long-term fix that saves, and possibly, reinvigorates journalism. (In an accompanying article, Josh Quittner writes that journalists must make online reading easier and more pleasurable for it to be successful.)
It's not news that the economic downturn is taking a harsh toll on the journalism profession. After the Kansas City Star went through layoffs last fall, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Springfield News-Leader soon followed suit this year. Newspapers have been hardest hit. But the television industry is also fighting to tread water in a rough tide. Even at market-dominate KY3, slumping advertising sales has meant the consolidation of job duties, doing more with less and a stationwide search for revenue enhancers.
In this week's cover story, former TIME managing editor Walter Isaacson offers what he calls a bold, but old idea: Charging for online content.
"We have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper of newscast," writes Isaacson.
At first glance, you may think: Blasphemy! This nation was built on the foundation of a free press, and I expect my press to be free of cost! Especially online! But Isaacson writes: "Those who believe that all content should be free should reflect on who will open bureaus in Baghdad or be able to fly off as freelancers to report in Rwanda under such a system."
Isaacson's proposal is modest: Charge for articles online like Itunes charges for songs. Maybe it's 99 cents. Maybe it's a dime. Make it easy, point and click. Make it cheap. A micropayment. No waiting. So you can get right to the content.
Each media outlet would carve out their own way of doing it. Maybe the Post-Dispatch charges 3 bucks a month to read Tony Messenger, Virginia Young and Jake Wagman each day. Maybe the News-Leader charges you a fifteen cents to read Chad Livengood's Sunday piece. Maybe KY3.com requires a dime for you to click and watch our latest Truthwatch report on a campaign ad. Watch 10, get the next one free! Maybe most of the content is free, and exclusives and special reports (with a brief tease to lure you in) get a price tag.
Would you do it? Or would you decide it's not worth your money.
Part of the KC Buzz blog's problem may have been that they went in alone. Political consumers thought, heck, I'll go elsewhere to get my daily fix. But what if everyone moved to this micropayment system. Would we lose readers/viewers in the process and shut out those not in the elite --- or would we build a more valued following?
It's a question that's as scary as it is prescient.
Isaacson concludes that if media outlets implemented the micropayment system for online content, some surfers would inevitably balk. But he thinks that over time, the best journalists would not only survive, but thrive. And he offers some evidence that some people will pay for top-shelf journalism, even in a gloomy economic environment.
In rough-and-tumble 2008, paid subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal were up 7 percent.
I still believe buying the newpaper is the best bargain in all the world. All that information for 25, 50 cents, or a dollar? There is no better buy.
But even this newspaper lover doesn't have any paper subscriptions anymore (though I do have several magazine subscriptions). I'd feel foolish paying for it, when I wasn't forced to.