A new Web application that (might) help pay for the news

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.

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. Totally with you in concept, that news organizations should be looking for any and all ways to support their operations — whether the revenue comes from news or not. But on this specific concept, there’s already a lot out there in this space, and it’s free.

    For one, OpenID seems to finally be starting to take hold just a little bit. At least I’m noticing more and more sites that support the standard, which cuts down significantly on the constant login/logout hassle.

    Second, there’s a number of companies in the identity field, including Dick Hardt’s Sxip, which, among other things, provides a free browser extension (Sxipper) that handles registration forms for you securely on a site-by-site basis.

    That said, I think the inclination to innovate outside the traditional news realm is spot on, even if this particular product might be tough to sell when so much is available for free.

    Be interesting to put a bunch of news/techie types in a room for a week or with one requirement: Come up with an innovative, potentially money-making venture NOT related to news. (Alan Mutter thinks it’s worth a try, anyway — http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2007/11/ventilating-chinese-wall.html).

  2. Tom Grubisich says:


  3. David Westphal says:

    As is his custom, Tom has hit the bulls-eye on one of the crucial issues facing newspapering. Will newspapers get with it, both in terms of technology and ideology, and create communities of interest and action that are unmatched in their hometowns? And I’m not so sure ideology isn’t the biggest challenge. We mainstreamers are so tethered to the objectivity model in which we just tell the facts and then move on, that we’re skittish about taking any further steps that look like advocacy.

    In Tom’s example, though, it’s not really much of a step from reporting the facts to facilitating community solutions. The Freep story could stand for tens of thousands of newspaper investigations whose underlying premise was that we’ve uncovered an untenable situation that cries out for a remedy. How many more of them could have avoided the standard fate of oblivion had newspapers been able, and willing, to use modern networking tools to take further steps toward eliminating the problem? I wrote about this objectivity question in a somewhat different context for USC’s Center on Communication Leadership.

    As I indicated there, I have qualms about moving away from this model, but I have bigger ones about not taking the advice Tom offers to create robust communities of interest and action. The old framework of newsrooms reporting the facts and then washing hands needs some work.

  4. says:

    How about Google News? It’s free, too.

    1)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.


  5. Agreed, especially with more organizations providing full-text RSS feeds.

    It sounds like he’s trying to create something like a Facebook for news but with a subscriber model. Might work, but, again, lots of free options in this space — including Facebook, which has a splendid API.

    You should also check out Newsmix (http://newsmixer.us/), which launched yesterday. This is a class project by Rich Gordon’s developer/journalist students at Medill, which mixes Facebook like sharing and commentary/conversation with news. (It actually uses Facebook Connect, as a matter of fact.)

    A little rough around the edges right now, and it needs a bit of IA love. But it’s an interesting idea along the lines of IVP, with tons of potential. There are bits and pieces of it I’d like to steal right now.

  6. David Westphal says:

    I ran across something Elizabeth Osder said at the Mizzou conference I thought was worth repeating. It kind of captures the IVP idea.

    1. Citizens are hemorrhaging personal information on the Web.
    2. Others are profiting from it.
    3. Citizens need to gain control of that information.
    4. Maybe there’s a role for media companies to help them take back that information and get a slight profit.

    And Aron, Newsmixer is a cool development. The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Steve Buttry was live tweeting a demo of it today.