The question of paid online content is very much on the newspaper industry's lips at the moment. Though as many newspapers have already tried and failed with online subscription models, alternative solutions such as micropayment or cable TV style packages have been proposed. Bill Densmore, former publisher, journalist and director/editor of the Media Giraffe Project at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, with the help of an $80,000 fellowship from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, is working on a possible scheme which would accommodate both these concepts. His initiative, the Information Valet Project, is an "effort to rally U.S. news and information-industry publishers to participate in a shared-user network for Internet demographic-privacy management, enhanced advertising services and subscription/per click content options." The Editors Weblog spoke to Densmore to find out more about his far-reaching and complex idea.
Not your average online payment scheme
The Information Valet project proposes that all information providers, such as newspaper websites, join together to be part of the same shared user network. A user would have an account with one paper, which would be their 'information valet,' and he or she would use this account to access other sites around the network. Depending on how much information about themselves the user agrees to provide, both the content and advertising on websites in the network would be customised to a certain degree for the individual user, based on demographic data or a user's past preferences. For those users who provide some information about themselves, relevant advertising would be shown, and users would theoretically have their account credited for looking at such ads, in a system similar to that proposed in late January by the Nieman Journalism Lab. .
In practice, Densmore envisages users paying their information valet a set fee per month to have access to a bundle of content from multiple websites, and the advertising revenue would be absorbed by the valet. It would probably be possible, however, to buy some information "a la carte." Any account with an 'information valet' would be portable, so users could move their account to a different provider if they chose, and providers would offer competitive proposals.
Densmore outlined details of the type of non-profit organisation he believes should run the network. "We are exploring the idea of calling it the Journalism Trust Association," and its broad social aim would be to sustain journalism. It would probably own a for-profit association that would actually run the network: it would manage the log in of consumers across the user network, and would "have a facility to make it easy to pay you as a consumer when you look at sponsored information, and charge you for information that you receive as part of a subscription bundle."
The ins and outs for readers, newspapers and advertisers
So for the consumer, it would mean that "rather than having breadcrumbs of your persona spread all over the internet with multiple logins and passwords, you can have a relationship with your most trusted information valet."
- Readers agree with this valet on what details they are going to provide about themselves and their preferences, and what packages of information or other services they would like.
- Densmore explained that it would thus give the user more control over their privacy as they would know who sees what information about them and they would have the option to block certain websites from seeing their details. And if they wanted, they could choose a 'Swiss bank' style service, where they would not need to provide any details.
For the information provider, the network would allow them to "forge a new kind of trust relationship with the consumer where you are helping them find and have access to the information that they need to get their jobs done in their daily lives." And crucially, it would allow them to receive income from readers as well as from advertisers.
And finally for the advertiser, it means the ability to approach specific people with advertising that is very relevant for them, rather than potentially wasting money on a mass market.
- Advertisers would be marketing to "individual users who are both anonymous yet identified."
- Densmore stressed that users will not exclusively see advertisements that correspond to what they have told the system they would like, as often people will find that they are in fact interested in a product that they did not expect to be interested in.
- Existing advertiser-information provider relationships would be able to continue.
Will it work?
The Information Valet project has already been developed in some detail, and Densmore is working with US newspaper chain Lee Enterprises which has agreed that one of its newspaper sites will demonstrate the 'notion' of the network in April in at a press conference in Washington DC. The Associated Press has agreed to provide Densmore and his team with access to its AP exchange database, which is a very detailed tagging system for content.
So the project is well on its way, and Densmore explained that technologically, there should be no difficulty in establishing such a network. However, to be effective, the network has to be virtually all encompassing, so the challenge is "simultaneously convincing a large number of content providers, advertisers and users that this network is valuable and that they should be a part of it." Densmore believes that creating a trusted organisation to manage the network is essential, as is making the network an attractive proposition for the consumer, which would also make it more appealing to the content providers. Densmore hopes that newspapers and other information providers "will ultimately realise that the challenge of having all these essentially incompatible protocols, like railroads with different gage tracks, is not a useful paradigm for them or for consumers," and will all join in.
To charge or not to charge for content
The big question for the media industry is, and the one that would undoubtedly be a crucial factor in its chances for success: could it save newspapers? The complexity of the system, and of the concept itself, appears likely to be one of its first stumbling blocks. People will not be persuaded to use a system that they do not understand. But, if Densmore and his team can take these complicated blueprints and hide them behind an easy-to-use consumer product/interface, they may just be able to pull it off. Whether it will make enough money to support newspapers is another question. As Densmore explained, it is extremely hard at the moment to tell when the idea has not been thoroughly tested.
Considering the current debate on paid content, Densmore's proposal is particularly relevant. Under his scheme, it seems that users would pay for their news, but content would be 'bundled,' meaning no individual subscriptions. Media commentators are fiercely divided between those who insist that paid online news is the only way, and the right way, to succeed, and those who assert that consumers will never pay, and that charging for content is an old fashioned idea that newspapers are returning to to make up for a lack of new entrepreneurship.
The question, as Observer writer Peter Preston put it, is "can content be put back on its pedestal again? Can original investment bring a reward?" He concludes, as the Editors Weblog has, that there is not much that individual content providers can do on their own: "only working together will work." Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, one of the few papers which successfully charges for online content, that "people are happy to pay for news and information however it's delivered, but only if it has real, differentiated value." He believes that the question is not "will people pay to access my newspaper content on the Web?" but rather, "what kind of journalism can my staff produce that is different and valuable enough that people will pay for it online?" The Real Clear Politics blog calls for a US industry-wide adoption of a pay wall, managed by the Newspaper Association of America.
Lauren Rich Fine, on the other hand, (writing somewhat ironically in Paid Content) is like many others convinced that paid online content is not the solution, and suggests instead that newspapers try to become the "local ad network that is so sorely missing from the mix," and "prove they are the best editors by pouring all their limited resources into great local stories and investigations, while complementing it with links to the best content on the web." She admits, though, that this will not restore newspapers to what they were financially, and indeed, as yet, the non-profit model or community ownership aside, other feasible alternative money-making schemes have been lacking.
So it would seem that there might be room for a project such as the Information Valet, as newspapers are in dire need of more income. The scheme would involve industry-wide collaboration, which appears to be essential if people are to be persuaded to pay, and the bundling idea would to an extent respect the openness of the Internet. More transparency with regards to the use of consumers' information is also likely to be greatly appreciated, in a time when this issue is also under scrutiny for companies such as Facebook. But Densmore and his team will have to prove that it will be simple enough for the consumer to grasp, and most importantly, that it will generate a significant amount of revenue for newspapers.