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January 31st, 2019

Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it's the end of the month again, and I'm out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.

Individually.

People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a "digital content gumball machine" because that's what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn't been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it's a separate challenge that I'll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can't even link to now that January's freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don't have gumball machines. You can't buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like "Continue reading this article for 50c." Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn't have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices...and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you're talking real money.

That's the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it's doable. In truth, it's not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There's way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: "Democracy dies in darkness." Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism...with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I've thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That's what Twitter is for, heh.

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