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Sunday, 15 May 2011

On a post by Annabel Crabb at The Drum, I made a comment (just one among 52 that were made yesterday). Her post is about reader payment for journalism. There were a couple of follow-up comments to mine but the real debate is yet to start due to media managers' ongoing concerns about alienating readers and losing traffic to competitors.

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The print media everywhere is currently trying to work out how to "monetise" what is more and more often being called "content". For freelance journalists such as me, who write stories and get paid a per-word rate for it (e.g. 75 cents a word for 800 words), this uncertainty translates into difficulty getting income. Some publications have cut their freelance budgets, or eliminated them entirely. Other publications voluntarily offer a rate that is inadequate for the purpose of recompensing the freelancer for their work.

Paywall models have appeared. There's The Times in the UK where you can pay 1 pound to get access to the website for a day. This model has been criticised for being too restrictive. Then there's the more recent New York Times model where you get sent to a subscription page after exhausting a certain number of clicks per month. Stuff, in other words, is being tried. The fact is that display ads online are not compensating publications for the loss of printed ads.

At some point readers are going to have to pay to read a story, if only to prevent freelancers from being squeezed out of business. The fact is that if you value a quality story you should consider who made it, how much time it took to make it, and the specific skills involved in making it. It takes time and effort to acquire the skills needed to write a good story. It takes time and effort to write the story (writing is the least part; there's also finding and contacting interview subjects, lining up interviews, research, interviewing, transcribing, and administration).

Maybe there needs to be a universal payment engine, not one owned by a specific publication. A universal engine of this kind could be used many times daily by readers as they negotiate the internet. A couple of clicks could serve to deduct the few necessary dollars or cents from an account linked to the reader's credit card, for example. But it would have to work on all websites. All websites would have to agree that this would work for them, and put the requisite link on the story page. It has to be quick, hassle-free, and universal. I know that Google has thought about this. There's also been a group of media owners in the US who have thought about it.

But basically readers have to be more appreciative, in a financial sense, of the work involved in producing what they consume. Briefly, the better a story is, the more time it took to write. A freelancer may have a dozen stories "on the go" at any one time. Each day he or she touches on many of those stories. It takes time. It takes effort. And it's a highly-skilled craft that takes time to learn.

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