Time magazine caused a lot of conversation earlier this year with its cover story on newspapers. The article argued for micropayments, sort of an iTunes model in which readers would pay a small amount to read a news story. The proposal has been met with skepticism, however, and Time itself has yet to adopt it.
Perhaps charging a small amount to read a news story or opinion piece won’t work. But what about the comments on those news stories? Should news sites ask people to pay a little for that privilege?
John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., floated the idea earlier this month, taking note of a story that drew more than 3,000 comments from readers. Imagine if each had paid a few pennies to do so. In a followup e-mail, Robinson elaborated on his post.
“As a practical matter, I doubt that charging to post a comment would raise much money. It is hard for me to believe that many of the commenters on my blog feel their opinions are so important for me and other blog followers to read that they would pay to voice them,” Robinson wrote. He suggested that some big-time blogs could try this but didn’t think it was a good idea.
I asked some editors at prominent newspaper Web sites what they thought of the “pay to comment” concept. Here are their responses, sent by Facebook e-mail:
Eric Frederick, managing editor at The News & Observer’s site: “All online media are looking for new ways to raise revenue, and micropayments definitely are an option. But if we ever charged a small usage fee, I feel sure that it would be for exclusive content and not for something so basic as participating in dialogue about current events. Public discourse is too important to be treated as a revenue source. It should be free.”
Andrew Nystrom, senior producer for social media at the Web site of the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t think it will fly, at least for the vast majority of existing sites and publications. There are too many widely read venues where people can comment for free. Evolving platform openess/interconnectedness and user-powered comment rating/filtering systems will only increase the profile of these free, user-friendly commentary outlets.”
Ju-Don Roberts, managing editor for the Washington Post’s site: “I think the real issue is that there are no incentives for people to pay for this kind of discourse. There are too many forums in which readers can freely exchange ideas and debate each other or the merits of our report. Charging a premium on such discourse will only serve to drive them off our sites and onto others where no such prohibitions exist.”
Alas, it seems there’s little enthusiasm for this idea. We’ll have to look elsewhere to make online journalism economically viable, either penny by penny or some other way.