Articles

A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly.

In Essay on January 20, 2010 by Dave Winer

Okay the NY Times is in a bind. They’ve got a good thing going, they’re the largest circulation news org on the web. But their print edition is shrinking in circulation, or the advertisers aren’t willing to pay to be there, or whatever. It’s not generating enough money to pay for the expense of all those reporters.

What to do?

Okay, we know what they think they want to do — put up a paywall. They’ve been saying so for a long time, but so far they haven’t had the guts to actually do it. For a while, a few years ago, they actually had a paywall on the op-ed page, until they realized the opinion bloggers were eating their lunch. Brooks and Krugman et al couldn’t get into the conversation because no one was pointing to them, because people wouldn’t point through a paywall.

I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it, because, while I appreciate that they need money, there’s no fracking way that the paywall is going to generate enough to justify the likelihood that it will knock the Times out of its leading position as an original source of web news.

Then I read the headline of a piece by Fred Wilson: Monetize The Audience, Not The Content.

I found the headline totally intriguing.

Never mind that I despise the word audience, I think anyone who thinks there’s an audience on the web is misunderstanding the web. But I wonder what the heck that means — Monetize The Audience. Hmmm.

Then I thought of something that’s been bugging me for decades. Why can’t I run an ad in the NY Times? And of course that’s wrong — I can run an ad in the NY Times. They take money from individuals all the time. Is it prohibitively expensive? Actually it’s not all that expensive, when you think about the stature it conveys. Once, a long time ago at Living VIdeotext, we put together $250K to run a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal. It was well worth it. The WSJ was a much bigger deal back then, in the business world it was kind of like the whole web is today. Can you imagine buying an impression for everyone reading the web for a full day for just $250K? If you had the money and something to sell them, which I did, you’d do it in a snap.

Now that led me to TechMeme. When they first started taking ads I told Gabe I wanted to buy some. Apparently my money wasn’t good enough, because he never responded. Every time I look at one of the ads there I think — this person meant more to Gabe than I did.

Here’s the deal, and this is going to drive professional reporters out of their minds. Not only do I write for free (for example this piece, which could make money for your employers, but won’t make me a dime) but on certain occasions, an idea is so important for me to promote that I might even pay for impressions, if the price was right and the placement was good.

And therein my friends is the solution to the dilemma of the NY Times.

Say I’m looking at a story and think “Sheez this reporter is totally full of it,” or “Didn’t I see this guy at a ballgame last week with the guy he’s quoting in this story?” or “I wrote a much better post about this last week, I wish everyone reading this could see my piece.” I would definitely pay for a spot next to every cockamamie piece David Carr writes explaining the “realities” of the news business.

In other words, the reporter makes his or her choices of who to quote or what angle to cover in their story, but we all know there are lots of ways to slice it. Why shouldn’t I be able to, off on the side, give the readers another point of view, assuming I’m willing to pay for the priviledge?

This potentially puts all of us on the same footing as the Times, without the Times having to give us any authority. They disclaim responsibility for what’s said in the right margin. “That’s just how we pay the bills,” says their editor.

I’m not paying to read the Times. I used to, but I don’t anymore. It’s not like buying the latest gadget from Steve Jobs. Paying the Times to read their stuff doesn’t give me sweaty palms. But blowing a few bucks to get my thoughts into the flow alongside theirs, now that’s something I’d pay for.

I’ve explained some of the details and groundrules in the first comment, below.

37 Responses to “A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly.”

  1. These ads aren’t glossy. They are editorial-style ads. All in the same typeface. And they can link anywhere (except phishing or porn or malware). You’re paying to insert your ideas into the flow and part of the deal is you can take them off-site. This will be good for the Times, people will want to see who thinks their ideas belong next to stuff they’re interested in. It also will make the reporters work harder to keep the interest of the readers, and they will read the ads, they always do, and learn a lot about the world around them.

    Also they must be auctioned, fairly and open to everyone. I think what they’re doing on Techmeme is just plain wrong. Ads should be an open platform, not something that reflects the friendships and alliances or economic interests of the publisher.

    • Part of your proposal is that news sites would publish this advertorial content in context of specific news and editorial content in response to the publication of that content.

      Let’s say the news site publishes an expose on genetically-modified foods. It would probably be an advantage for companies like Monsanto or a GMF industry group to tell their version of the story in context.

      There should be nothing wrong with this in theory, but how might the Advertorial revenue impact the original editorial content.

      Assuming the content is factual, would the advertorial revenue encourage more muckraking or more whitewashing?

      If the space was auctioned off would consumer groups and individuals be able to compete with industry groups, companies and governments?

      Does that even matter?

      One result might be that news creators could be encouraged to do more muckraking if that produced a lot of defensive advertorials. From my perspective this would be an overall positive. If the advertorial money produced more whitewashes then this would be a negative.

  2. I love the idea. Absolutely brilliant: the Times becoming a platform for advertising ideas.
    (Google adsense & co. being ad systems for products)

  3. One of the more interesting ideas I’ve heard in this whole debate.

    My one question would be how to avoid the ads becoming a laundry list of SEO like gaming.

    In other words, the tech article auctions would always be won by AOL, TechCrunch, etc. as they would calculate the value of the traffic and make a bid low enough to make money but high enough that it would shut out voices that were good but not commercially oriented (if there is such a thing)

    Also, isn’t part of being a good journalist now and in the future finding these voices and linking to them anyway?

    • I don’t really understand the concern — but why should the Times care?

      Whatever maximizes revenue to them is the correct answer (for them).

      As far as what I would be willing to pay — I get value from it that an algorithm can’t get — my passion for my causes get satisfied by having it aired. So I’d be willing to pay incrementally more than a robot.

      TechCrunch presumably is just reselling the flow, I think they’d get quickly routed around. Why do their advertisers need them to act as intermediary. All their editorial is just clutter, interferes with my message getting through. Off to the glue factory! 🙂

      • “Why should the Times care?”

        Because 99.999% of the value of their brand is due to their being “The Paper of Record.” If they sell that for short-term cash they don’t have much else to distinguish them from the Washington Post, WSJ, etc.

  4. In “A Breakthrough for the Times” you entertain an interesting idea; in many ways what you suggest moves Times readers toward a more democratic conversation style. Encouraging a dialogue between readers and writers may indeed challenge existing viewpoints. This idea is a popular one, some browser plug-ins already achieve this aim.

    Conversation can change ideas and mindsets, so it behooves us to consider some psychological issues that pertain to communication. There are psychological studies that indicate a human propensity to persist in our own thoughts and even dig in despite presentation of data to the contrary: when we publicly communicate we commit ourselves to our ideas even more completely than when we’re alone thinking our own thoughts. In a related vein, other studies show that we have a tendency to search out information that confirms or reinforces our own thinking.

    To further complicate communication concepts, we surrender some thought processes when we perceive ourselves to be in the presence of authority. This may play into how news organizations achieved social dominance. (It certainly explains why people are dumbfounded by politics.) Perhaps journalism is seeing a dissolution of an aspect of this authority effect as we have moved from the physical printed page to the virtual online page. Nevertheless, there are significant powers that be who would love the opportunity to bogart a page of data. Today’s supreme court ruling regarding corporate spending during election cycles has re-released the barrel of monkeys that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill sought to contain. (http://is.gd/6K1CJ)

    As a country and a society, we are in a legal and financial bind: restrictions on free speech work both ways. And we’re about to find out how much or how little the individual can influence their world without the ability to match the deep pockets of corporate America.

  5. Dave,

    I think you’re really on to something here. There seems to be a ton of people tying to “level up” quickly on Facebook games or Second Life, etc. One way to do this is to play the game for a long time and the other way is to pay to earn points. The fact that so many people pay surprises me since consumers tend to be very price sensitive and, in areas outside entertainment, they are very willing to trade a lot of their time in order to save a little money.

    What I’m now wondering is if your idea would work in the commenting section of digg or reddit too? Would it work where you’re mixing individual, consumer, comments and opinion with commercial ads?

    What you’ve described sounds a bit like Google AdWords – except, with AdWords you have no idea where your ad ran.

    – Joe

  6. Hi Dave,

    Here is an alternative to your paid Advetorial proposal.

    Let’s call this category of web technology “Social Newsworking” (google search reveals “Results… about 305 for “Social Newsworking”

    News sites would require users to pay a subscription to be permitted to post special comments on news articles and editorial content. These special comments would be subject to “digg” like voting, by all subscribers paid or free, to give visibility to the most compelling arguments. The top comments would be posted near the editorial content. Free subscribers comments would get posted underneath paid subscriber comments in threads and would not be subjected to digg like voting.

    The news sites would also encourage blogs to post about the editorial content (which is happening anyway, “fair use”). News site’s paid subscribers would be provided a mechanism to permit them to comment in the original news site comment thread simultaneously while commenting from remote blog threads in places like Huffington Post, Redstate or whatever. The comments might be voted up or down remotely as well.

    The cross site special commentors might have some indication in their user signature that identifies them as a special commentor of a particular news site and link to all their comments there.

    This way news sites would open up more content to comments and get more paid subscribers. News sites would give paid users extra value to express their opinions on site and around the web. This would encourage more traffic to their pages to take advantage of traditional advertising.

    All of this would be online. No trees would be hurt in the production of this revenue.

    Related to this I look forward to the $100 or free news reader device that uses my home network to access the Internet to browse the web for news. This device would allow me to read ebooks and watch videos. This device would not require a cellular subscription. Access to some news sources might require different levels of subscriptions that might possibly might be bundled in the cost of the device.

    This device would also allow capture of content for offline reading and manage content similar to an iPod. It could have a digital keyboard to comment on news and respond to email, but it would also have a button to allow me to flag content to comment on or respond to later when I am online and using a regular computer and keyboard. The email function would work in real time or in delay mode when you are not accessing a network.

    There are a lot of people who could use an ereader type device who have no interest in adding another monthly fee to a cellular carrier.

    Buzz

    • Okay but that isn’t what I want.

      I don’t want to be part of a crowd, I want to pay to stand out from the crowd.

      • This would not preclude you paying for your advertorial.

        My idea relates because your post is about individuals being provided new ways to express their opinions in the context of legitimate news outlets while offering those outlets additional revenue.

        This would be a variation that would permit a lot of people to pay a little for he privilege to competing to have the best editorial responses (comments) highlighted along with the original content.

        Not everyone with a good idea related to particular news content can afford to pay for an advertorial.

        Right now the news sites don’t allow or bury comments. If they do allow comments, they don’t have any mechanism for highlighting the most compelling arguments.

  7. I love it! I’m going to take the idea one step further and say newspapers should charge for commenting. They could allow HTML (many don’t) and then if I disagreed (or agreed) with an article I could write a short comment and link to blog.

    As a blogger, that’d be worth a subcription and as a side benefit a newspaper’s comment cesspool would most likely turn into a thoughtful forum.

  8. Do you recall that for years and years what was then just the oil company Mobil had an ad on the NYT op-ed page where they advocated their point of view? Sometimes it was in direct response to recent items in the NYT too.

  9. Presumably in response to: “Assuming the content is factual, would the advertorial revenue encourage more muckraking or more whitewashing?” and others, Dave said, “Whatever maximizes revenue to them is the correct answer (for them).”

    (That might be a bit out of context, but hard to tell) – I think it is important to remember that the reason anyone cares about saving the newspapers is because presumably they perform a public service, to a degree, of objective journalism. Any dynamic where the journalism is/may be significantly compromised by commercial concerns is suspect. Of course, I’m not naively ignoring the fact that it takes money to run news organizations, and that dynamic is in play already. But I think we ought to be cognizant of that fact and fold it in to calculations intended to “save the newspapers”…

    Then of course there’s the whole other philosophical question about buying attention on the internet, etc., but you seem solidly in the “good capitalist” camp in the question.

  10. A few questions
    1) Can’t someone come along and give this ‘service’ for free and break this game? Eg an aggregator pulls in content and allows users to post their views, right there with prominence and an editorial twist without charging. No paywall hence free aggregation and from multiple sources.
    2) Isn’t this a form of paid commenting?
    3) News is fine when fresh, so how quickly will I have to churn out my ‘paid comment’ and submit it to the Times to actually get an audience for my money’s worth?

  11. Dave, this is a fantastic idea, although it’s not entirely clear what differentiates this advertising system from AdSense, apart from some additional quality-control and rules. I think it is most certainly on the right track, and the idea of monetizing the audience is much more appealing than a paywall.

    I just posted last night about Apple’s rumored affiliate platform for iTunes, and I call you out in particular as somebody who could help bring a powerful affiliate marketing mechanism to the news. So for instance, I could setup my own online store to sell news subscriptions and paid content. I see this as another huge monetization opportunity, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    My post is up at http://bit.ly/75ngvp

  12. Interesting idea. So does creating a model that is supposed to foster the sharing of ideas – one that is based on the creator’s ability to pay in order to play – really get a lot of people excited? Are those of you who back this idea anti-net-neutrality?

  13. I still don’t see why anyone would pay hard earned money to post a comment/opposing article/different spin/etc? It just seems like throwing money away. Especially when they could just post a comment in a comment box…like this one…for free. Plus, its like one commentator said, it just sounds too involved of a process, and will take too long, during which time your audience will simply evaporate because some other news story broke. People now adays just want to read headlines, maybe read half of an article and move on. The future of news is making it quicker,faster,shorter…if that’s even possible. Sorry, but this just seems like it would slow everything down.

  14. Brilliant! Think how great it would be in teaching media, journalism, current events, digital citizenship, civic engagement, media literacy, and social studies at school. Another example of authentic learning. We’d just have to get the Times to waive or reduce the fee for schools. Have you talked with Sulzberger or the editors yet, Dave?

  15. At first read this sounds like a very interesting idea and certainly requires more debate, but isn’t this just advertising? Someone paying to put their content/product/service in the spotlight next to content someone reads? It can be more editorial and less glossy but it’s still advertising. Or not?
    My view on the all issue is very simplistically summarised here: http://thewaterrat.com/2010/01/20/media-in-the-maelstrom-part-3/

  16. Dave:

    This is a great idea. In mind’s eye I can see this as a pay-for-play OpEd (as in the original sense of “Opposite of the Editorial”) And I can see this as an real play for someone with the pageviews of the NY Times.

    If you have a big article busting the chops of Big Pharma, I can see it being very valuable to get a chance to get in front of people with a response, or US Chamber of Commerce responding to some article about Unions.

    Anyway, not sure that’s what you meant, but if it is, it’s pure genius.

  17. you ask why you shouldn’t have the right to offer your POV next to a piece by david carr or one of the other writers there? simple answer. as a reader, i don’t want hack advertorials clogging up my reading experience.

  18. Hmmm…Not sure I’m wild about your idea and…
    News moves so fast, posts/articles become digital fish wrap fast. I’m not 100% convinced you could go through the purchase process (including writing your response/editorial) to make anything you post anything but historical.
    —–
    I do think the idea of having to become a paid member to comment has merit – to carry that to the next level maybe there could be a premium member (you) that gets their comment highlighted and (possibly) are allowed to post longer more detailed comments with links. This is also probably easier/cheaper to implement.
    —–
    Still not sure this would help that much monetarily, there aren’t that many people that comment/participate and if it was just the rich, big companies, etc. inserting all this into the stream I might just ditch the stream.

  19. Interesting idea, indeed. But hard to see it saving the NYT on a revenue basis. It’s an age-old problem to try to make up for lost ad revenue with circ revenue. I think you may be overestimating the universe of commenters who have both honest insight and sufficient ego to pay to post. And if the ego needs win out over the insight, it degrades the experience for the “paper” of record.

    If the right column is run as an auction, the brilliant insightful commenter will likely lose to the corporate voice every time, leading me to trust the right column of the Times as little as I would the right column of a Google search.

    Still, an idea worth talking about. Feels like the point in the brainstorm just before someone suggests the little tweak that makes the big concept do-able.

    • Yes, I was just thinking, how marvelous for companies like Monsanto. Now instead of issuing press releases or filing law suits when they don’t like articles, they can freelance their attacks to Anonymous. Some Anonymous account posts a story about how the writer does a bad job reporting, links to some made-up predated blogs concurring, and the article loses all traction.

  20. […] Not yet, really. No. But have a look at Dave Winer’s idea about  users paying to get their own posts along side the NYT articles. […]

  21. […] A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly. Okay the NY Times is in a bind. They’ve got a good thing going, they’re the largest circulation news org on […] […]

  22. […] Winer, the new media pioneer and now NYU guest professor of journalism, has an idea that could put this concept to work for popular publishing: Let people pay to have their […]

  23. […] A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly. […]

  24. […] A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly. […]

  25. I like the idea and I think experiments like this are well worth running. If only 10% of readers ever comment when it’s free, the math should be interesting. Will business commenting end up subsidizing sports reporting? Fun things to analyze.

    My belief is that the solution to the Times financial woes is that they will have to deflate their costs (e.g., worker’s salaries) to reflect the globalization of the news…News is a commodity. Why should someone working for the Times make 10x what someone stringing news in China, India, or Fargo does?

    As for the printed form, that’s a format that should carry the full cost–both production and environmentally–to the person who chooses that format.

  26. The Jerusalem Post already does this, almost exactly as described, through a company called TalkAhead (see http://www.talkahead.com/publisher/index.html).

    My concern over all this is that, in the rush to monetize everything, you will kill the talkback web. Charge to read the articles. Charge to comment on them. Charge to vote on them! Eventually, sending a simple Letter to the Editor will require a Paypal account.

    See the short story A Medicine for Melancholy.

  27. This seems quite similar to the standard practice at specialty publications and it hurts their credibility. Most sites or magazines that cater to small audiences have a not so surprising correlation between those that advertise and the content of the articles. Whether the article was written first and the advertising salesperson approached the advertiser, or the advertiser said they would only buy if they were also covered positively in an article, does not matter. The content of the article is tainted.

    Now I understand that this idea would be different in that the content of the add would be a counter argument to the article — but wouldn’t that be just a different type of plastic? It would invite manufactured conflict to boost readership. Think John Dvorak’s traffic generating comments on a New York Times scale.

    (I just looked up the John Dvorak video from 3 years ago and realized it was posted by you! Ha ha … so you must have thought about this angle.)

  28. […] Winer, the new media pioneer and now NYU guest professor of journalism, has an idea that could put this concept to work for popular publishing: Let people pay to have their […]

  29. […] A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly. Content producers would bid to have their articles, images, videos, etc. appear next to related NY Times articles. Smart, intriguing subsidization idea. […]

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