I have a few friends -- OK, really, something like two -- who are so cool that, really, I feel badly overmatched in our friendship. Seth Mnookin is one of those friends. He’s writes for big magazines, he writes books, he hangs out with stars, he does charity work, he zips around New York on a motorbike of some kind, he wears black a lot. I am entirely out of my friendship depth.
He’s also a brilliant media critic -- his book Hard News on the New York Times is absolute must reading for anyone interested in newspapers. I asked Seth if he would write an essay on the future of newspapers. He sent along some thoughts about a big question here: Will people pay for content?
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About three weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion on the media -- which, as far as my bank account is concerned, still consists of the results of my labor being transformed into physical products made out of dead trees and so forth.*
* I'd adopt a Posnanskian conceit here and include my footnotes -- which I've always been a fan of** -- in the text itself. So: in the past fifteen years I've been employed by daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, weekly magazines, monthly magazines, and quarterly magazines. I also did a stint writing for the late, great Inside.com, and while it was among the most fun of my many jobs, I don't think I logged enough time there to qualify as a new-media employee in any real way.
** In the NYT Book Review of Feeding the Monster, Chip McGrath said, "He has also chosen to lard his book with copious footnotes, some of which appear to be a homage to David Foster Wallace." I do not think he meant that as a compliment.
To the extent that my "talk" had any kind of organizing conceit, it was that the news industry's "original sin" wasn't so much giving away content for free, it was making it so damn hard to pay for content. I contrasted that with two popular topics here: the Kindle and the iPhone. Amazon and Apple have both perfected the type of instant-gratification, on-the-spot payment plans that basically erase the lag time between wanting something and owning it--buying a book or an app are, in today's parlance, incredibly low-friction transactions.*
* So low friction, in fact, that on more than a occasions I've woken up having spent the previous night doing the Kindle's/iPhone's version of drunk-dialing: buying books/apps without any thought as to whether they were something I'd still want to own, come morning. This is the only way I can explain why I now haveiBird Explorer Plus loaded onto my phone.
The problem, as I saw it, wasn't that people weren't willing to pay for information they could get elsewhere for free; it was that it took more effort to pay for that information than it did to find it for free. To wit: in the time it would take me to fill out my name and billing address and track down theCVV/CVC code on my credit card, I could have done a half-dozen Google searches and found 824,000 other places to get that same data. What the newspaper/magazine world needed to do was get together and institute a single pay system, where you click on a button on any media site --be itnytimes.com or thebark.com -- and .99 cents (or $10.99, or whatever) magically disappears from your bank account.
A few days later, Steve Brill, one of my old bosses, announced he was starting Journalism Online , a new business based on that exact idea.* And in the few days after that, plenty of people -- including Jack Shafer -- explained why Steve was insane and his idea was doomed to fail. Jack argued that no one would pay for pieces that could easily be pirated by clearinghouse sites like The Huffington Post, or Gawker, or anyone else: "What legal recourse will Journalism Online and its hypothetical client/partners at the New York Times, Newsweek, Esquire, The New Yorker, and Fortune, et al., have if Gawker's rewrite aces observe both copyright law and the "hot news doctrine"?" This, I think, misses the point.** It's obviously cheaper for me to look up the flight pattern of a European Starling using the free mobile Wikipedia app on my iPhone than it is for me to pay for iBird Explorer . It also costs me more time, effort, and aggravation.
* This is one of the many reasons Steve is a wealthy entrepreneur and I am perpetually struggling to "monetize" my "labor": when I have an idea, I blab on about it during an ad-hoc panel at an art gallery; when Steve has one, he raises a couple of million bucks and makes it happen.
** Of course, Jack is someone who has a long and frequently brilliant career writing online, so by any measure he's better qualified than I am to write about the world of the Internets. He's also, from what I've heard, one hell of a bird watcher.
(If I was writing this for a print publication, this is where my editor would tell me to wrassle up a good kicker to close out on. Oh well...)