Making news pay: a pressing issue

December 9th, 2010 by

microtask_press_newsThe newspaper business has always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the web. On the one hand, reporters now have instant access to the most magnificent research tool ever known to mankind. On the other hand, so does everybody else. Since 2007 an avalanche of free, online new sites (oh, and a global recession) have caused newspaper sales to plummet in the US and Europe.

Of course, some quality publications have managed to stay profitable through online advertising, but in general, making money online hasn’t proved easy for your average hardworking media mogul (witness Rupert Murdoch ranting at search engines). In an age where information is as prolific as a Nigerian email scam, is there anything the papers can do to get the crowd to pay for news?

War of the walls
The obvious solution is paywalls. Papers which appeal to the business community such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have had paywalls for a while, but it is Rupert Murdoch that has taken them to the masses with papers such as The Times (London’s oldest daily). This seems to be a trend, with the New York Times recently announcing plans to join its UK namesake in 2011 .

But is such an extreme measure, effectively blocking news out of the web altogether, really the best way for journalists to support their expense accounts families?

Sponsor a reporter
Answer, perhaps not. These days crowdfunding isn’t just for starry-eyed, indie bands. Serious, investigative journalists – crucial to a working democracy, but also awfully expensive – have started appealing directly to their readership. Political cartoonist and writer Ted Rall raised $26,000 so he could travel to, and report on the situation in, Afghanistan (not a move we’d recommend unless you’re an experienced foreign reporter).

Beyond such one-off projects is Spot.us, a news site entirely built on crowdfunded journalism. Reporters pitch a story, readers decide whether to invest. Finished stories are displayed (for free), and sold on whenever possible, with any profits go back to the crowdfunders.

Spot.us doesn’t just want your money, they want the crowd in on the action. Citizens can give suggestions of topics they’d like to see covered, and team up with reporters to help them complete assignments. The project even has its own little corner of distributed work (aww): if you can’t afford to donate money to the site, you can earn spot $ doing tasks for the site’s partner organizations.

Taking the news to task
I admit, reporters (not to speak of editors and owners) on more established newspapers might not like the idea of being told what to write by the crowd. But, if more and more “quality” news is going to end up behind walls, couldn’t The Times and co. at least give readers another way of getting through?

How about this: instead of paying for access (£1 per day for The Times), you could perform some microtasks? The majority of readers in the “developed” world – cash rich, time poor – would probably choose to pay the money rather than do the time. But in developing nations the tasks might seem quite attractive.

Personally, I suspect paywalls will end up as just one more ingredient in the online melting-pot of free, crowdsourced and paid-for journalism. Quality news is expensive to produce and must be paid for somehow. If they want to survive the information age, the grand old men of news might do worse than look to the crowd for a few ideas.



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