A Penny for Your Journalism

While researching funding models for journalism start-ups, I came across another example of why news paywalls do more harm to solid journalism than good.

My online search led me to an article on a website published by Inside Philanthropy. According to its Crunchbase listing, Inside Philanthropy is a journalism site that aims to “pull back the curtain on one of the most powerful and dynamic forces today.”

I was about a third of the way into a well-written article laying out business models, funder pitfalls and examples of what not to do, when the paywall crashed down like the castle gate in an old movie.

Yes, we all know why paywalls are there, but this one struck me as especially callous given the topic and exceptionally pricey, given the topic: $47 monthly.

The sales pitch on the outside of the gate promised a weekly newsletter and access to an archive of thousands of articles filled with gory details of how people to give money to other people. But the clincher was the promise of access to the Inside Philanthropy database of more than 14,000 funders. Eureka! Here, take my $397 and sign me up for an annual subscription.

The publisher’s About Us page leads off with David Callahan, who founded Inside Philanthropy five years ago. He now has a staff of 11 writers and editors, all of whom seem eminently qualified to be doing journalism. Journalism is expensive, Callahan declares, and his no-ad website tries very hard to prove it.

In an earlier post, I noted how publishers use every trick in the book to make their stories visible in search but then want the visitor to pay for the privilege of reading them plus all their other stories, of interest or not. Paywalls may be a numbers game, but turning people away because they just want a candy bar and not a lifetime supply of candy seems self-defeating.

The smarter approach is a publisher’s penny, a universally accepted chit to pay for that news story, the one you want to read, and not the entire newsroom.

The utility of micro-payments for valued, virtual goods has been around for years in the gaming world. With all the smart app developers out there, building something like a publisher’s penny seems like child’s play. If bitcoins work as well as they claim, creating a virtual voucher proffered in exchange for a single news story should not be that hard.

Sure, the legion of online scammers would soon be poking around the edges of the publisher’s penny, looking for a way to take what doesn’t belong to them. That’s been true of online commerce since the shopping cart button first appeared. Amazon has certainly figured out how to keep crooked fingers out of the cash register. Why not the news hawks?

Pay-as-you-go news reading would quickly show which stories more people want to read and which stories should have been spiked. A publisher’s penny lets reader demand reward good journalism with cash flow which in turn produces more good journalism.

So long as Big Social continues to draw all the oxygen from the online advertising space, traditional news merchants will never be able to support what they do with pop-up ads, clickbait and paywalls that prevent you from consuming their product.

A few pennies to read an interesting, notable story when multiplied over the vast ocean of internet surfers would quickly put quality news reporting back into the hands of the people who want to read it.

The trick will be convincing publishers that the coin of the realm is virtual.

Dan Larson