Reestablishing the Value of Online Content

The breakthrough of the original World Wide Web was that content could be instantly published and therefore accessible any time from anywhere in the world. The next breakthrough will involve adding seamless monetary transactions to the equation.

On October 21, 2015, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) officially kicked off the new Web Payments Working Group. Their official charter states that the mission of the group is “to make payments easier and more secure on the Web.” At this historic moment, it’s important to take a step back and recognize a fundamental truth about the state of monetary transactions online.

When the Web was first conceived by Tim-Berners Lee in the early 90’s, it existed within the overall purview of “the Internet” which had not yet been fully commercialized. It was still a technology largely used only by governments and academic institutions. The Web, coupled with e-mail, comprised a major one-two punch that helped propel the Internet beyond academia and into the commercial marketplace and general public use.

Almost immediately, e-commerce was established as a way to facilitate an entirely new way of purchasing goods and services, and we all know how the rise of Amazon, eBay, PayPal, iTunes, and countless other behemoths have dramatically transformed our society. But what is particularly noteworthy, and in a sense shocking, is that all of this was accomplished with no open-standard financial protocol baked into the structure of the Web.

That’s right: every organization online has had to invent and reinvent the wheel when it comes to e-commerce, employing a variety of solutions from digital wallets to niche digital currencies, but most commonly utilizing the good ol’ credit/debit card. Amazingly, we still punch in that 16 digit number, expiration date, and maybe CVV number into text fields on a web page in order to buy something—even though that technology is but a minimal evolution of something invented in the 1950’s.

So what? Everyone pays for stuff using the Web now. Why do we need anything new? Answer: Content Monetization.

As an artifact of the way the Web initially developed, content on the Web has historically been available at no cost. With no barrier to accessing a URL, an article, a photo, even a book or (eventually) a record or movie could be consumed or downloaded for free. This of course has introduced massive headaches for content creators: how do you make any money producing content if it can all be downloaded for free?

I’ll skip over the music and movie wars of the 2000’s…between iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, and other media marketplaces, we’ve reached a point where, yes, it is possible to make money online selling digital music, movies, TV, ebooks, and more. But there’s still one type of content monetization that has proved frustratingly elusive: journalism.

The Internet has not been kind to newspapers and magazines. In the quest to make money online, publications have tried every trick in the book. Ads. Paywalls. Freemium (free content as a prelude to paid membership content). Pay-per-article. Patronage (asking for financial support from readers simply relying on their goodwill, typically viable only for niche indie publications with die-hard fans).

No one model has emerged as The-One-True-Way to make money publishing on the Web. But it’s clear that something has to be done and soon, because journalism as we know it has been struggling for quite some time and the need for a real solution has reached mission-critical status with the rapid rise of ad blockers.

Ads…suck.

Web ads are fundamentally broken. It’s a race to the bottom and we’re getting scarily close to the bottom. Ads have become increasingly invasive both in terms of privacy and computer performance, as well as compromising visual asthetics, and meanwhile it’s become trivially simple to use ad blockers on mobile devices (Apple’s iOS 9 plays a major role here) — which is how so much journalism is consumed these days. As the value of an ad decreases due to lack of engagement, the amount of money publishers can make drops off precipitously. And at time when so many news outlets are already struggling financially, any additional loss of revenue is anathema.

So what is to be done? Well, the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) has taken the first step towards drafting a new set of digital ad guidelines that ideally play nice with ad blockers and provide a superior UX (User Experience). The opening line of their announcement is “We messed up.” Encouraging words to hear for us ad-weary users, but I must admit I remain skeptical that this mea culpa from the ad industry will amount to much. I believe the heyday of the online ad has passed us by, and we ain’t never gonna get it back.

Micropayments are the future.

Which brings us back to the Web Payments Working Group. I believe that the work they will be doing, coupled with an open-standard digital wallet solution (possibly utilizing a digital currency, Bitcoin or otherwise), will herald a new era of micropayments on the Web. And this is how publications will survive online, not by squeezing every last drop of ad revenue out of their websites or relying on overpriced, draconian paywalls, but by getting a tiny amount of income out of their viewership in a process that’s completely seamless and transparent to both the reader and the publication.

Models that point in this direction are already starting to see some success. Blendle, a company that launched in the Netherlands and is expanding to new countries (and hopefully the U.S. soon!), has created a two-way network of readers and publications where readers pay around 10 to 80 euro cents to read an article (and can request refunds for articles not up to their liking), and publications can participate in a discovery-based marketplace. It’s been called the “Netflix of journalism” although the model really isn’t that similar. It’s worked out surprisingly well so far, although it remains to be seen if that success can be replicated in additional countries around the world.

I don’t believe a proprietary service like Blendle is the ultimate answer. I believe in the power of the open Web and the benefits of an open platform not controlled by any one company. But for the Web to do for publishers what a service like Blendle might do, we need a solid micropayments infrastructure. It must to be a no-brainer to spend a few cents here and there on online content that comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Therefore, it must be a lightning-quick one-click deal. If I’m forced to start filling out forms, reaching for my credit card, or remembering a password, you’ve already lost me. And it must be totally private and secure—just because I’m paying you 10 cents to read your article doesn’t mean I’m ready to start sharing all my contact information and personal data with you. That should be a separate opt-in.

Journalism is not dead. But journalism-as-a-business has its work cut out for it.

Until the Web offers a fully-baked micropayments solution that is widely adopted on all platforms, publications will continue to struggle with numerous not-quite-cutting-it business models and questionable deals with proprietary networks (Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Blendle, etc.). It’s a messy situation, but I’m confident that a few years from now, the story of how to make money online as reporters, researchers, and wordsmiths will become a whole lot clearer.


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Jared White