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Paying for Online Journalism: The Television Model

Perhaps nothing is discussed as much as the financial future of online journalism. Without the large-scale advertising rates that were prevalent in print journalism and without subscriptions, how are news organizations going to survive in nearly any form?

For me the financial answer is simple–use the television model. When I go online it is to browse just as I do when I watch television (I “watch television,” not a specific program). And when I watch television, I know that certain channels are free, a bunch of others which may be of higher quality or more to my liking I get because I pay a monthly cable charge, and then if I want to see a specific movie I will pay $5 for that opportunity. Watching the movie is the only time that I don’t browse television — in part because it is a movie with a narrative that was created to be seen at one time, and in part because I have specifically paid for it.

Perhaps the Web should be similarly arranged so that a large number of sites are free, an array of others are available only if one pays a single monthly subscription fee, and then there are other sites which one has to specifically pay to view.

My sense is that, just as with cable, there will be a strong desire to keep up with other readers and view many of the same outlets, so that people will pay for a range of sites (the basic plan, the “basic-plus plan,” the “sophisticate’s plan,” the “internationalist’s plan,” the “visual journalism plan,” the “Spanish/English plan,” etc.). And then there will be certain sites that charge monthly or annual fees just for themselves–maybe the New York Times or Le Monde or El Pais.

Certainly one of the allures of cable television is better reception–so maybe the internet equivalent will be giving viewers faster connections, their own email accounts, or some such add-ons.

Or perhaps there should be a financial merger between television and the Web–for the price of a cable television subscription plus a few dollars, the viewer not only gets all these television channels to watch, but a whole array of Web sites are made available as well.

And advertisers, knowing that the viewer is paying for certain Web sites, will gravitate to them for all the same reasons they show their wares on cable television–these readers have some money.

The idea here is not to create a class system on the Web, but to help find a way for journalism to survive. Someone has to pay for it. And certainly many of the free sites will be at least as excellent.

And as far as linking goes, perhaps some form of Ted Nelson’s old Project Xanadu should be given a try–every time anyone links to another site, whether it is free or paid, a cent or two automatically goes to the copyright holder (presumably the site’s owner). If certain people do not want to be paid at all for their site, even for the links, then they should be able to opt out of Xanadu. There would be no cost for blogging about another site or otherwise expressing an opinion, but links to specific content as well as quoting them on one’s own site should result in a micropayment to the copyright holder. The intent, again, is to reward reporting with enough funds so that some form of what we now call journalism can continue.


One Comment

  1. Miki Johnson wrote:

    Hi Fred,
    Insightful commentary as always. I just put up some thoughts on this subject, especially as it relates to Chris Anderson’s FREE book and photography, on the RESOLVE blog.

    There seem to be several of these “free” models that are working right now. I’m adding your “network vs. cable vs. premium” theory to the comments now.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

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  1. 1416教室 » 周一消息树 on Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    [...] 另一位学者 Fred Ritchin则提出另一个思路,能否按照有线电视的收费思路来拯救报纸。电视收视系统中有免费的,也有收费的,而收费则意味着有更多和更优质的节目与服务,他指出 [...]

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