I watched a documentary last weekend about the world’s biggest bit torrent search engine, The Pirate Bay, called TPB AFK. Here’s a link to the NSFW movie on YouTube. During the film, one of TPB’s co-founders talks about a different project: Flattr, a social micropayments website. A user of Flattr first loads an amount onto their account each month. Let’s imagine $15. Then, as the user surfs the internet and comes across great content (e.g. one of TimelessFinance’s amazing posts), he finds the “Flattr” button nestled among the other social media buttons on a site and clicks it. (Sorry, no button here at the moment.) The content in question could be a news article, video, podcast — you get the idea. By clicking the Flattr button, the user adds the content creator to a monthly roster along with all the other sites he’s “Flattr’d” during the month. At the end of the month, the user’s account funds (minus a 10% administration fee for Flattr) are divided up among each content creator on the monthly roster. If he loaded $15, there’d be $13.50 available for distribution to content creators; if he clicked 30 Flattr buttons during the month, each creator would get 45 cents.
Maybe this particular model will work, maybe it won’t. It seems to have stagnated somewhat in the years since its announcement. In fairness, this may be due, in part, to market manipulation by evil companies like Apple (thanks iFans for giving them free reign to ruin everything). To really take off, both users and publishers must adopt it en masse — but that creates a classic “chicken and the egg” conundrum.
Large-scale adoption will probably need to be grassroots or at least based on the participation of new media. Most old media industries remain complacent; not because they’re immune to a shakeup but simply because they’re composed of reactive not proactive companies. Television has flourished over the last decade thanks to premium TV channels and, lately, services like Hulu Plus. Music has done quite well at $0.99 a song, coupled with growth in value-added experiences such as concerts. $20 copies of movies for home consumption are dead-and-buried, along with Blockbuster, but theaters are more packed than ever and RedBox makes it cheap and easy to rent movies.
Newspapers haven’t done quite as well. Every time an elderly person dies, the total number of newspaper subscribers irreversibly drops by one. Advertising revenue alone is too flimsy to support a creative endeavour as labour-intensive and local-oriented as a newspaper. Why do I care about these paper artifacts? They deliver better investigative journalism, higher-quality content, and more in-depth stories than any other type of media (well, at least when the Toronto Star isn’t busy writing press releases for the Liberal party). Unlike TV or radio, newspapers offer much more than sound bites. Oh, and paper journos are held to vastly higher standards than bloggers (only stated in case the recent plagiarism scandal hadn’t made this abundantly clear).
Sadly, rather than adapt to the new reality of how people consume media, newspapers are trying to change that reality. Look at the paywalls recently put in place by Canada’s biggest newspapers and many of their local brands. By my calculation, it’d cost at least $60 a month to access the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. That’s way too much. I don’t need the printed paper copy; digital is just fine for me. I refuse to stick to a single news outlet; I won’t pay for TO Star’s biased coverage of provincial politics just to get their federal opinions. Non-subscribers can still access actual news stories from Google News, so $60 a month is way too much for the marginal benefit of subscription (that marginal benefit being the extra stories and analysis).
But I’d definitely be willing to pay something to access the Star, the G&M, and the National Post. My willingness to pay would be about $15 – 20 a month. Maybe $20 – 25 if the editions downloaded automatically to my Kobo by WiFi every morning or something awesome like that. Keep in mind that the variable cost of my digital-only subscription would be pennies. And they could still stuff my face with ads (in fact, they could even target these better because they’d have my demographic information and reading patterns). Each company could be paid a flat portion of revenue (e.g. based on current subscriber bases) plus an amount based on digital readership.
Don’t worry, I’m not delusional. I know there’s no way those three national newspapers would ever offer a combined digital pass. It’s even less likely that they’d adopt a system like Flattr (or develop one of their own) even though this system could help non-committal readers like me support newspapers. (e.g. If I left a “Flattr” tip on the Globe and Mail’s website, they could add an extra article view to my maximum monthly allowance of free views. But I digress; it’s useless to discuss such logistics because Old Media companies don’t think in such revolutionary terms.)
Thus I leave this Friday’s post with an even less satisfying conclusion than usual: I wish Canada’s newspapers would offer a combined digital-only service for a reasonable price or another unique solution to their revenue problems. But they never will and in the long-run Canada’s greatest newspapers will succumb to market pressures or get gobbled up by integrated media chains.
Luckily this post’s real conclusion is pictures of Cat.
And I lied. The conclusion is a YouTube video.