Monday, September 14, 2009...10:00 am

More thoughts on paying for online content

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In response to the news that Google is throwing its hat into the online content micropayment ring, Mindy McAdams counters with a suggestion for a small daily fee for website access, as opposed to, say, a small fee for individual article access. She imagines:

a kind of token ID, sort of like a gift certificate code. (These must be secure, because every e-commerce site uses them.) The difference would be that you could use the same code on any computer, logging on and off, for the specified period of time. (The code would expire after 24 hours, for example.)

My response to this is that the biggest problem is not necessarily the willingness of people to pay for journalism (though, to be honest, I think they are less and less inclined to do this), but making the effort to actually do so.

Anything that puts up a barrier between user and content will drastically cut usage, be it registration, making people watch an advertisement before seeing the content they click through to, or making a payment.

The payment thing is a double whammy. I may (possibly) be prepared to pay my 50c to read the New York Times. But I can’t put coins into my computer. So I must be a member of some payment mechanism (PayPal, Worldpay, whatever) and so be able to pay through that, using my passwords and such. Or I must have my credit card to hand and go through the palaver of using that. Really – it would have to be extra special and useful content for me to do that, and 99.9% of the time online it isn’t.

The other issue is the difference between consuming paper-based content and online content. I may well pay $1 or so for a newspaper to read on a journey, or with a cup of coffee, but I’m much less inclined to do this for online content. Online, I’m much more likely to be reading an individual article that I find through search, or via a blog link. I don’t sit down and “read the paper” in the same way.

Some attempts are being made to think around this problem. There are a few donation-based models now up and running that take money you put in a central pot and distribute it around web sites of your choice based on your actual usage. But as this is a charitable model, you’d have to be very motivated to set that up.

Could you make this sort of model compulsory? Maybe. But I think it’s the breaking of the link between the payment and the physical object of the newspaper that’s at the heart of this.

Breaking music albums up into MP3 tracks has destroyed consumers’ willingness to buy actual albums. Similarly, the breakup of content on the web has undermined consumers’ willingness to buy newspapers as newspapers online.

So, unless any suggested payment mechanism can accommodate much more promiscuous online reading patterns, I think it’ll be a non-starter.

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