LETTER TO THE LRB: Make ‘em happy to pay!

July 13, 2011

My modest proposal to save the newspaper industry

Here’s a letter I just wrote to the London Review of Books in response to an excellent essay on the future of the newspaper industry by John Lanchester, which you can read here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n24/john-lanchester/let-us-pay

Dear LRB,

This excellent essay is a very good example why good print journalism should, must, nay, will, I believe, survive.   The best way of understanding any hot and complex topic of the day, from an Arab revolution to a phone hacking scandal to the future of the print media, is by reading good journalism, either in print or online.  TV and Radio don’t even come close.  The Twittersphere, Facebook, 99% of blogs etc etc have many varied advantages and trump card qualities, but in depth analysis and good writing are rarely among them.

My interest in the essay is more than vague and passing.  I’m a journalist (music and culture primarily) who, like many other journalists, is wondering how my chosen profession is going to put enough food on my table in five years time, or maybe even less than that.   I cling to the idea that the need and demand for good in depth writing will never go away, and that someone, somewhere will find a way of both supplying that demand, mostly online probably, AND getting people to pay for it willingly, instinctively.

A tall order I agree.  But I believe that what is primarily at fault with current ham fisted attempts to find the right ‘monetizing’ model, including Murdoch’s ridiculous experiments with pay-walls, is technical and procedural in nature rather than philosophical and strategic.  In short, no solution will be forthcoming until the internet as a whole finds a safe, secure, universal and EASY way of dealing with micro-payments.   Buying a piece of journalism online has to be made as easy as walking into a newsagents and buying a newspaper.   At the moment, the online shopping experience is frankly absurd.   How would bricks and mortar retailers fare if the following scenario occurred every time you wanted to buy let’s say, a pint of milk and a paper?:

CUSTOMER:    Pint of milk please…oh, and a copy of The Guardian.

SHOPKEEPER:    Great.   Can you fill out this form first please.

CUSTOMER:    Form?  What form?

SHOPKEEPER:    Oh, it’s a registration form.  We need your name, address and a unique password, which you have to fill in twice.  Don’t worry about all the market research questions, you don’t really have to fill those in mate!

CUSTOMER:    But why do I have to do this.  I only want to spend £2.45.

SHOPKEEPER:    Oh, that’s because we need you details so that we can market our products to you.  And you’ll need your  password if you want to buy anything else from us.

CUSTOMER:    You what??!!   But I don’t want to be marketed to.  I only want a blessed pint of milk and a paper.   Oh well, ok…

[Customer fills out form in a fit of frustration and hands it to shopkeeper]

SHOPKEEPER:    Thank you very much.  Oh, oh dear.  I’m afraid your passwords don’t match.  Here’s a new form.  Could you fill it out again…

[Customer fills out form again, turning red with mounting rage...]

SHOPKEEPER:    Oh great.  It works now.  We’ll send a note to your address in the next few minutes, and then you can come back and pick up your pint and paper.

CUSTOMER:    But can’t I just walk away with them now.

SHOPKEEPER:    No, sorry sir, it’s security you know.  Can never be too careful…

[And so on until customer pulverises shopkeeper to a bloody pulp and gets life with no parole before 20 years etc etc.   A sad tale.]

Anyway, the point of this little vignette is to illustrate the absurd experience of shopping for inexpensive items online.   Newspapers, and most other online companies who have cheap (under £10) products to sell (newspapers, magazines, record labels etc etc) have made the huge mistake of sacrificing the ease and useability of the internet as a whole at the altar of binding customers to a shop / brand each time a purchase is made.  Murdoch et al also make the mistake of believing that online consumers of written journalism will be happy to ‘subscribe’ to one daily online newspaper, just as they used to do when they were subscribing to printed papers, and be satisfied with that single solitary online newspaper for all their news needs.   Er…sorry but it doesn’t work like that anymore Rupert.   With access to every newspaper in the world it’s now the online news consumer’s prerogative to look anywhere and everywhere for the writing and the coverage he or she desires.   Instead of paywalls and systems that attempt to shackle a customer to one online title via subscription, each article of any length and note (i.e long in depth features rather than small bitty news pieces) needs to be sold INDIVIDUALLY for a small amount, and the processing of that sale needs to be extremely easy, as easy as handing a few coins over a shop counter.

Let me explain how it could work.   Some company or organization, let’s say Pay Pal just for the sake of argument, develop an online ‘wallet’ for payments under £10.  You top it up with money when necessary, or it can be done automatically when the amount in it falls below a certain thresh hold.  You open your wallet at the beginning of an internet surfing session by logging into it, giving it your password etc etc.  Your wallet will then stay open for the duration of that session.  (For safety’s sake, it could close automatically if you don’t use it for a user defined period, let’s say 30 mins, or when a certain total spend has been reached, say £50).   And off you go.   An article in LRB catches your attention with a free-to-view 200 word extract.  You like what you read or you might be a fan of the writer.   Two clearly displayed buttons read “To read this article pay £0.15p.  To download it as PDF pay £0.50p”  You click on the fist option and the princely sum of 15p is taken electronically from your wallet and, by some complex circuitous route, ends up in LRB’s coffers.   The article ‘unlocks’ itself and you ready away happily.  Simple as that.  You carry on surfing, buying and reading articles in the same way from the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The National in Abu Dhabi, the Sydney Morning Herald, Foreign Policy and Vanity Fair.   You so enjoy the Vanity Fair article that you opt to pay a little more, say £2.50, for the right to download a number of current articles, equivalent to what the old printed version of the magazine might contain.  You also buy two tracks from the website of Dog Hair Records out of Cleveland Ohio, a ringtone from Doo Wop Productions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and a 52 minute documentary from the BBC.   Each of these items cost less than £10.  Anything over that requires you to go through the rigmarole of inputting name, password, credit card details.  And you put a limit on what can be spent in one session, thus avoiding any major fraudulent use of your wallet, by your teenage daughter or by a more sinister party.

OK, so none of the news organizations from whom you’ve bought content end up with your details, the all important e-mail, which to procure, so online marketing gurus say, is a holy and essential part of any online transaction.  But they’re wrong.  The internet needs to do away with that old hat idea and realise that until a consumer can breeze freely from site to site at his or her complete convenience, and buy small chunks of content easily and quickly, there will be no answer to that ‘monetizing’ grail.   Every system so far devised has gone against the spirits of infinite freedom and infinite choice that inhabit the very heart and soul of the internet, alongside the sadly entrenched spirit of getting something, everything, for nothing.  And those monetizing systems are more often than not badly devised, illogical, annoying and totally off-putting.  We’ve all sat in front of our screens fuming because we’ve forgotten a password that we entered into some site 8 months ago and as a consequence are being denied access to an article or product etc etc.  People may balk at signing off an online standing order to pay £8.97 a month for access to a single publication’s website.   But who’s going to balk at spending a measly few pence with one click  to read an intelligent, well written, in depth article about a topic they happen to be very keen on that day.  I wouldn’t.   In many ways, the fact that LRB graciously gave me John Lanchester’s essay to read for free is in itself absurd.  I’m afraid to say that I haven’t been tempted to subscribe.  I’ve just done what 99% of folks who’ve passed here before me have done.  I came, I read and I moved on to my next, free, online thrill.   You might say I’m my own worst enemy, and you’d probably be right.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Morgan.

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