Friday, May 22, 2009

How would you like to be paid, Mr. Journalist?

I've been wanting to create an alternative way for bloggers to earn money aside from advertisement, because I believe that advertisement is a corrupting force in the modern world. An article that is worth reading does not necessarily draw advertisement, and so socially important subjects become underrepresented. This is the reason why, I believe, there is a business section and a car section in the New York Times, but no "world peace" section, and no "news in anticorporate activism" section.

I also worry that without income from full-page advertisers (which do not exist online) or from classified ads (which became free thanks to Craig's List), neither the print press nor bloggers will have a budget to fund large investigative journalism efforts. It would be unfortunate to see the fourth branch become yet weaker than it already is.

My idea is to create a Firefox plug-in which automatically keeps track of the articles you are reading, and then distribute a fixed monthly sum to their authors in proportion to how much of their writings you have read. If you say that all the writing you consume on the Internet is worth $10/month to you, then that is the amount the plug-in distributes.

The keys to make this work are:
  • The interface has to be super low overhead. People dislike being forced to consider values and prices constantly, which is why they prefer unlimited long-distance plans, unlimited Internet, and owning a car to than renting by the hour from Zipcar or Communauto (even though the latter is cheaper). When you think "I could speak with my mom for another five minutes, but is it really worth 1$ to me?," it is clear you would prefer to be thinking about the mom than the 1$. This is why, I believe, micro-payments are failing, and why the plug-in should not allocate 10 cent per article or some such. In addition, choosing which author is worthy of a donation and who isn't is also overhead, which is why the plug-in should keep track of your reading habits in the background.
  • The money should be pledged at the moment when you finish reading the article, but it should not be collected until the author comes and claims it. This is an approach similar to that of the group activism site The Point, where people pledge to send money or do an action, but to do so only when enough people have pledged to reach a tipping point that guarantees that there will be an impact. Waiting for the author's claim also ensures that the middleman cannot be accused of hoarding the money. This sort of accusation happened, for instance, to the Russian Organization for Multimedia & Digital Systems (ROMS) which is the governmental entity responsible for distributing the copyright fees collected by AllOfMP3.
  • A community site needs to be created to match articles to their authors, so that authorship disputes may be resolved in a way that is satisfactory for the users of the plug-in.
This approach aims to solve a number of problems with the "please donate" banners. First, chasing the banner around the many web pages of all my favorite authors is onerous. Second, often the most deserving authors are those who shy away from displaying such a banner. Third, in the case of authors you read regularly, there remain a risk to setting up a recurrent payments, namely that you may forget to turn off the payment when the time comes.

This just one idea. Another idea is that of Spot Us which is uses The Point (as above) to raise funding for individual articles. Nobody knows where they paycheck of journalists will come from in the future. However, the urgency of finding a way is certainly highlighted by the recent row of newspaper bankruptcies.

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