Probably not the last word on whether micropayments can says newspapers

The other day, when I wrote a blog post reacting to Walter Issacson’s Time magazine cover “essay” on how “micropayments” could save newspapers, I included this statement: “This essay sounds like it was written in 1997, not 2009. Geez, the micro-payment debate. It’s the one where…Jakob Neilsen argues for and Clay Shirky argues against.”

Here are two of the best rebuttals I’ve read to Issacson’s proposal and the first one is, no surprise to me, from Clay Shirky:

Clay Shirky:Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers


“Because small payment systems are always discussed in conversations by and for publishers, readers are assigned no independent role. In every micropayments fantasy, there is a sentence or section asserting that what the publishers want will be just fine with us, and, critically, that we will be possessed of no desires of our own that would interfere with that fantasy.”

Michael Kinsley:You Can’t Sell News by the Slice


“Newspaper readers have never paid for the content (words and photos). What they have paid for is the paper that content is printed on. A week of The Washington Post weighs about eight pounds and costs $1.81 for new subscribers, home-delivered. With newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink) costing around $750 a metric ton, or 34 cents a pound, Post subscribers are getting almost a dollar’s worth of paper free every week — not to mention the ink, the delivery, etc. The Times is more svelte and more expensive. It might even have a viable business model if it could sell the paper with nothing written on it. A more promising idea is the opposite: give away the content without the paper. In theory, a reader who stops paying for the physical paper but continues to read the content online is doing the publisher a favor.”

Personally, I don’t dismiss micropayments out-right. I do believe that new technology can change the dynamics of the market as iTunes did for music. But I can safely predict that any technology solution the newspapers themselves dream up will fail miserably.

I do find what Doc Searls is doing with his VRM project intriguing in that it enables micropayments that can be exchanged that reflect various types of currency important to marketplaces. For example, his concept of PayChoice could enable the type of pricing RadioHead used when releasing In Rainbows. Or payments could be made in denominations of “attention” — letting a marketer have access to your purchasing interests so that advertisers can get what they really want: potential buyers, not “eyeballs” or “impressions.”