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Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I'll also tell you why this wouldn't work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing -- and perhaps turning away -- the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you're not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you've shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you're going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter's question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I've been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I've seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don't use these sites much. That's nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I've seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets -- traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews -- brought in with search-engine optimization -- rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader -- and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I'll tell you why my reverse meter won't work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall -- many -- and how many had paid -- few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There's always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it's that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it's still sponsoring -- that is, giving a free ride -- to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don't even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site.....

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships -- deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.
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28 comments
 
This reminds me a lot of the recent freemium version that MOG put out. The free version has a fuel gauge that refills with more social interaction (posting your music, talking about it to friends, interacting, etc). I wonder how that model is working for them...
 
You have to be careful though not to give people incentives to game the system. Many metrics that you can come up with for measuring value and engagement on the internet can be automated, and the last thing anyone wants is a bunch of people creating worthless fake traffic and fake ad clicks, and spamming every social network with indiscriminate shares, in order to get a paid product for free.
 
There would need to be a measure that applied value to the user-generated content/actions - otherwise it would devolve into users simply doing the cheapest actions required to get credits; which would be readily apparent through the metrics, of course, so the business could adjust accordingly. I still feel strongly that the big play for valuable content (true journalism) is still in the rules surrounding linking strategy; something IP and copyright are reluctant to address or, at least, offer a best practice on. There also still needs to be a mass reeducation that content generated has value to users (particularly at the local level), akin to other businesses that have taken something 'free' (TV, radio, water) and turned it into a valuable commodity (cable, satellite, bottled water) and therefore costs to produce. However, the publishing industry has not done itself any favors by making every single mistake possible at every level, beginning with their jealously guarding the one thing they had in plenitude that larger companies have difficulty with: customers at the local level that trust them and years and years worth of data on them - but when you don't share, people then to work around you and not forget. Publishing industries' downfall is nothing more that their failure to understand what the product is - it's information, not format.
 
Look at your listing of how a reverse pay-meter would work. Now replace "times" with google, twitter, HufPo, or FaceBook. Think.
 
What I think is required then is a third party "engagement measuring" service which is willing and able to put forth the effort necessary to reliably detect fraud (like Google does with AdSense). It's a tough problem that news outlets wont be capable of tackling on their own. Anyone for a startup? ;)
 
Jeff: Raju Narisetti, managing editor of the Washington Post, proposed this very thing at News Foo 2011, in an Ignite Talk. I don't remember if he called it a reverse paywall. I think his term was "freewall." But the credit-for-engagement idea was the same. The Ignite Talks are being edited and should be up soon. You can see how he got there from this: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110613/04012214672/washington-post-managing-editor-explains-why-focusing-direct-revenue-consumers-is-short-sighted.shtml
 
Interesting approach, +Jeff Jarvis . I'm glad you specified earning credit for comments that other readers recommend, because many of the comments at my local newspapers website are the dumbest things you'll read all day. They (the dumb comments) may help draw more traffic to the site (because the debates have a train wreck quality), but they waste a lot of staff time moderating the site.
 
When I was consulting for About.com long, long ago, I came up with a scheme to charge an advertiser, too, on engagement over impressions, arguing that this is how long-term value for the brand would be built. So instead of CPM or CPA we'd have CPI, cost per interaction, or some such. In this example, if someone commented, it'd get so many engagement points; if they recommended the site, they'd get more; if they created content for the site (in that case, a video), they'd get more, and so on. Fleeting campaigns with fleeting impressions builds no value. So for both media and marketers, these are ways to start to value relationships over messages, eyeballs, content, traffic, and all those old measurements.
 
+Joe Friend Absolutely agree about what the product is - information, not format nor specific platform or technology. Making a business out of selling information requires that you have some control of the resource, which in this day and age is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. IMO the survivors in the information peddling game will be those who regularly provide info not found elsewhere (like the Onion or hyperlocal) and those who consistently present information in a compelling, constructive and for lack of a better word , beautiful way. Content will remain king; purveyors who recognize great content, treat their audience and customers (advertisers) with respect and fairness, will prevail, I hope.
 
+Robert Fox Why expire?! Why non-transferable? Seems to me that the more such credits become a commodity (take cash, for example) the more useful and valued they become.
 
+Jim Coffis - agreed: to clarify "information", I mean the distillation and refinement of information in a trustworthy, relevant and timely fashion.
 
I'm not a particularly heavy NYTimes reader. I pretty much follow links, and when I have time I read the Disunion Civil War blog. I still sometimes run into the paywall, and give it about three seconds of thought a month. I use a home and work computer, plus a smart phone. I routinely use three different browsers on each computer, and one on the phone. So I get 7x20 stories a month. When I run into the paywall on one -- usually on Safari on my work Mac -- I either open the story in another browser, or I blow it off, depending how badly I want to read it. This is so easy to do -- as is hitting "stop" before the pay notice comes up -- that I assume the Times understands it as part of the model. If not and they crack down, fine. I'll go somewhere else. If I can't get what the Times offers, exactly, I can probably get 90 percent of it without paying, and I pay for enough things -- including, people always forget, my Internet access. This idea that news consumers are getting their news for free online is nonsense. We pay. We pay our ISPs. The fact that the news organizations such as newspapers aren't getting a cut of that is between them and the ISPs, it seems to me.

I haven't been conditioned to expect things for free, and I don't need to be taught that news, or anything else, has value. People are willing to pay for cable TV because it offers something that you can't get for free. Bottled water, I'll grant, is kind of a mass hypnosis thing, but even there, people are paying for convenience, as well as buying the illusion that they're drinking better water. If the Times, or my local newspaper, offered me something for my money that I couldn't get, or couldn't get a decent approximation of, for free, I'd pay. I know some sites that do that, and I pay money to a couple of them. I've never seen a non-niche newspaper that does it.
 
+King Kaufman Interesting that if you got rewards (or could earn a way out of payment) you might be motivated to visit the Times using just one browser. That demonstrates the value of building a relationship.
 
I think the most likely digital future of the Times and other "papers" is dropping the 80% of content that's just filler, since it's competing with lots of free entertainment.

They should have worked with +Dave Winer to become a city community portal.

Alternative: sell the brand and 20% real-journalists to Amazon.
 
+Jeff Jarvis That's right, I probably would be. I'm happy to give up something, whether it's money or my email address or my time, as long as I get a fair value for it. If my engagement has value to the news org and the advertisers, then you're absolutely right I should be rewarded for it. You're trying to tackle a problem here that predates the Internet, of course. How to reward loyal, valuable customers, rather than non-customers who are just interested in the sweet-deal come on. I hate when something I'm a customer of offers some big discount -- for new customers only. So I made a mistake being your customer? Duly noted.
 
"You have to be careful though not to give people incentives to game the system."

I wonder how it would work for the NYT to go even farther than Jeff's proposal to really gamify itself--to offer credentials, credits and badges to those who participate in their community and get good feedback from other members, especially editors and writers. If you really develop a community like that, they will look for ways to support you. I love how Leo LaPorte and the TWiT TV team have developed the TWiT community and am a proud drinker of the kool-aid. When they were building their new studio, I was glad to buy a brick to support the effort. And I actively support the companies who buy ads on TWiT shows. I think most traditional news companies are leaving a lot of money on the table by failing to develop communities to their full potential.
 
So long as the NYT thinks it is dealing with a business/advertising problem, it is missing the boat. Its core is not a retailer serving customers or advertisers - that's simply the shit necessary to enable its core to exist. At least Jeff's idea speaks to the actual value of the Times to and from its readers. Perhaps we need to eliminate the idea that it has readers. Consider all not as producers or consumers, but as elements of a mutually beneficent intelligence community.
 
I'm certainly no expert or even a very good student of the "news business" but it seems to me that with very few exceptions (financial newsletters comes to mind) news has always been free or close to free. Maybe you paid for delivery but the income generated from consumers rarely funded the news organization. So how can trying to create a business around getting your audience to either pay for or "earn" the privilege of access ever hope to succeed?
 
Reverse meter: Pretty innovative thinking. 20+++ years ago, in my first career in the Energy business, the concept of connecting the to the "power grid" (or its earlier incarnation) and selling energy back to the power companies was just as bizarre a concept. Today, many mini-power generators both use electricity from the grid and sell it to the grid when they are producing excess. I love this concept for the news industry. Why not do this (two way buying/selling or licensing) for stories, photos, video, movie reviews, exclusive interviews etc. With a little thought, one could extend this business model to excess ad inventory, classifieds, and more.
 
The financial failure of "free" digital editions is the failure of the advertising model used in those free editions. Most advertising simply fails to engage the reader/viewer at the same level as the article content. Advertising content should mirror the reason why the reader is interested in the topic. When I was a library director - all of our programs were free - but we would advertise books and media that related to the topic being discussed using displays and reference. The referenced materials circulated and our "products" moved. Pretending the flat - two dimensional campaigns fit with dynamic/ timely web content because that is-the-way-it-has-always-been-done diminishes the potential value of digital editions.
 
The key strategic opportunity for all media organizations is relationships. Therefore, and because this is what all media organizations can use as a strategic opportunity, this cannot be the key strategic opportunity for news sites. It certainly must be part of the strategy, but it seems to me that the key to their strategy has to be what is supposed to make news sites unique: that they have the best people working full time doing journalism and offering their output as an an original public affairs information resource of superior quality to anything else out there. If this can't be part and parcel to their strategy because there's no economic market for that service, then the logical result will be for many news organizations to abandon efforts to add that kind of value and to offer information products that continue to degrade in quality.
 
The key influence - with any corporation - is short-term profit maximization to serve share-holders. The idea that a corporate entity would invest in the "best people working full time" goes against the grain of short-term profits. Ironically, many of the original media businesses pre-date corporations and had evolved their relationships with their fans from having the best people they could find working full time.
 
fck news..just dance. oops did i say that out loud.? consume the news? ah why we fail...
 
Local newspapers must realize that they are no longer the primary source of national or worldwide news. There is no point in my local newspaper publishing an article about the death of Kim Jong Il, for example. I've already heard or read it elsewhere before the paper is ever published (even online) -- probably at the major newspapers I do visit online for national/world news: Washington Post, NY Times, LA Times and The Guardian. The old way of syndicating news content to hundreds of local newspapers is ... pointless.

However, local newspapers need to capitalize on unique content, such as local events, the same content that they ignored for many years because they were too busy trying to provide the locals with national or worldwide news. Some newspapers could try to become sources for specialized content, such as economics, law, manufacturing, technology, etc.
 
You are only part right +John Cook . Newspapers are no longer the primary interface where people read national or worldwide news. The problem, however, is that newspaper organizations and the journalists who work for them have always been and still are the primary source of original journalism being conducted about the most important issues involving our knowledge and understanding of public affairs, including the workings of government institutions, private institutions, and people involved in these institutions etc...

Your point about Kim Jong Il is part right, except that many people seem to assume that we don't need full time, paid journalists who can provide us with a meaningfully useful perspective about who he was, what his death means, what happens moving forward because he is dead, etc... We can disagree with the template that the journalist establishes, but it's very important to have the template as a familiar and generally trusted source for people to start with and deliberate about. As funding sources for full time journalists erodes the templates that we might otherwise get from them will presumably degrade in quality and become meaningless. Views about this news thus become fragmented and we may be prone to losing sight of what's actually valid or even true.

You say newspapers need to capitalize on unique content but one of the problems is that it is local newspapers suffering the most. People in cities all around the world are more likely to go to national sources of news now, thus undermining the economic returns for local news. This degrades the quality of our local newspapers. The huge companies that own these newspapers will, over time, decrease funding for them and the cycle will continue as we are likely to continue to have fewer big companies owning our local news and thus, likely to provide insufficient funding and poor quality of local news sources.
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