Assume for the moment that the chemistry which made newspapers a business success for hundreds of years no longer works. Assume that billions of dollars in revenue vanish from newspapers because advertisers discover that they have better, targeted options on the Internet. (Given this week’s bankruptcy filing by the nation’s second-biggest newspaper company, Tribune Co., these assumptions shouldn’t be much of a stretch.)
What, then, happens to the content that was part of that chemistry? What happens to the news and information we’ve always thought was an integral portion of keeping our democracy humming?
About four dozen people interested in this question were offered a possible answer last week at the University of Missouri: You build an entirely new kind of chemistry, a Web concoction so compelling that people are willing to pay a few bucks a month for it, and part of that money will be used to pay for news content. (Alternatively, users might agree to provide a bunch of personal information that could be used to sell advertising.)
Here’s what the paying customers would get: An Internet interface that would be a one-stop shop for all registrations on the Web (no more endless filling out of user-registration forms); a trustworthy, safe and secure place where privacy worries would disappear; and a news and information site that would provide local news obtainable nowhere else.
Is this something you’d consider paying a few dollars a month for (or hand over personal information)?
When I first heard this concept explained by conference organizer Bill Densmore, a scholar at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Missouri, my first inclination was to say no. Internet users expect stuff to be free – including ease of use, security and content. And even if someone came up with a killer application that could command monthly fees, what are the odds the news business would be the creative force pulling it off? Or that news content would be essential to making it work?
But Densmore got my attention when he talked about how, in some ways, the newspaper itself also was an unlikely candidate for success – an oddball combination of news, advertising, comics, horoscopes, etc., that became one of the most lucrative businesses ever invented. It shouldn’t be shocking that the model that might replace it has a bit of Rube Goldberg in it as well.
And, of course, there’s this question: Who’s got a sure-fire better idea on how to pay for news content? This is not a moment to be rejecting new ideas out of hand.
The Missouri conference came up with this description of what the project – Densmore calls it the Information Valet Project — is trying to achieve:
“A permission-based ecosystem assuring privacy that allows you, in a trustworthy way, to share personal information so that content providers and partners can create a structure to provide you with content, applications and incentives tailored to you and your needs.”
What do you think of this idea? You can find out more about the Information Valet Project (and leave your input) here.