The debate over the future of journalism takes place across a philosophical divide. On one side is the crowd that says the news wants to be free. On the other is the crowd that says so do the chickens, but if we free them we run out of eggs.
I'm becoming an egg man. "You get what you pay for" is a verity with enough tread left to go another 10,000 miles, and although it would be a wonderful thing if the news we need to sustain our democracy continues to magically show up forever on our computer screens each morning, it won't. Democracy's lifeblood is a commodity. Short-sighted capitalists played a big role in producing the media mess, and visionary capitalists will play a role in fixing it.
After the recent Chicago Journalism Town Hall, where the panel was composed mostly of older farts more adept at diagnosing the media's ills than prescribing treatments and the audience bristled with young turks, panelist Barbara Iverson of Columbia College posted on her Web site a list of eight business-model "alternatives to those typically called mainstream media." In Iverson's models, the money comes from grants, or foundations, or patrons, or John Q. Public—but it always comes from somewhere, because it has to.
So I think consumers will pay in the end, and I think fairly painless ways will be found to take their money. We've been hearing a lot recently about the idea of putting editorial content behind a firewall and charging micropayments to breach it. Bad idea. No one likes to be nickeled and dimed. Pay even a penny to visit a site that turns out to be a waste of time and if you're anything like me you'll sulk for the rest of the day.
My small contribution to the town hall debate was to sing the praises of a new online venture called Kachingle. It was a case of love of first sight—I'd heard of Kachingle only a few days earlier—and what won my heart was the premise that the public will pay for news if the paying is not merely easy but exalting. Kachingle is the first idea I've seen that's psychologically astute. Why do I walk around with a membership card to the Art Institute in my wallet that I rarely use? It's because every time I do go to the Art Institute I get to strut in for "nothing," and because the face in the mirror belongs to a credentialed patron of the arts.
Can anything be finer than that? What about stepping up to become a credentialed patron of democracy? If I am and you're not, forgive me if I don't let you forget it.
Kachingle understands that so long as the Internet feels free, it won't matter to a lot of people if it actually is. Sign up and "subscribe" to Kachingle—all founder Cynthia Typaldos is suggesting at the get-go is $5 a month, but the amount is up to the subscriber—and then go back to wandering the Web as you always have. Whenever you visit a valued site that has also signed up with Kachingle, show your respect by clicking on the Kachingle "medallion" there, and at the end of the month your $5 will be divvied up proportionally according to those clicks.
If a site turns out to be a waste of your time, don't click the medallion. If you visit a site you enjoy but disapprove of, don't click the medallion. Treat these sites like the magazines you thumb through at the newsstand and put back because you'd never dream of buying them.
Kachingle isn't free, but it eliminates what Typaldos calls the "mental transaction cost." "People can't be always thinking, 'Is this worth 33 cents?'" she says. "Especially if they don't know what it is yet. Nobody wants to be always worried about little things." Kachingle is now in "preview mode," as Typaldos rounds up what she says are hundreds of "content sites." But newspaper publishers have been slow to cotton to her idea. "I had one newspaper person say, 'This is terrible. We know how much our newspaper is worth and you have the user deciding.' And I said, 'The world is user-centric now. It's worth different things to different people.' It used to be the paper said it's worth this much. We're saying the user decides how much it's worth."
When Typaldos, a California-based social networking expert, told me more about Kachingle, it turned out she was miles ahead of me in working out the psychology of it. She's applying the lesson known to every busker, which is that bystanders become much more willing to drop coins into your hat if they see other coins already there.
She's counting on Kachingle subscribers to set an example. They can pay anonymously, but they can also pay very publicly, with their choices easily accessible to other subscribers—and in this Facebook age she expects 95 percent of them will make their choices known. "You're getting something back," she says. "You're saying, 'This is me.' And it's not only to your friends—you're showing it to yourself.... Let's say the Chicago Reader has a medallion, and the New York Times blogs have medallions. And NPR. These happen to be the sites you really love. You contribute because you want them to be around and you want them to be part of your persona."
And yes, you can funnel money to the New York Times publicly and to the Drudge Report anonymously. There's never been anything pristine about our news transactions; our vanishing newspapers flaunted their virtues on one page and their strumpetry on the next. If their foreign affairs coverage didn't bring you in the front door, gossip brought you in the back. The town hall conversation was too high-minded to wonder whether the media replacing our dailies will be able to vamp.
Town hall moderator Ken Davis asked what it would cost to assemble and run an online news bureau the equivalent of the present Sun-Times newsroom, and Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop replied, "In terms of enterprise journalism that keeps the powers that be in check, you can do that for two to four million a year." Davis told Clark he was crazy, but Geoff Dougherty, creator of the Chi-Town Daily News, said Clark was right and later argued the point on his Web site.
"How can the Tribune spend millions while our online news organization spends less than $2 million?" Dougherty wrote. "It's simple. The new news organization doesn't have an advice columnist, a suburban bureau, an auto writer, or a fashion critic. It does one thing, and it does it better than anyone else: Provide Chicago residents with the information they need to make smart decisions about public affairs."
The Chi-Town Daily News focuses on those local affairs—City Colleges board meetings and the like—that even the dailies have marginalized. Without any of the bells and the whistles, I later asked Dougherty, what will attract the public to your worthy, glamorless reporting?
"We're not having a problem attracting an audience," Dougherty said. (He claims the site gets 56,000 unique visitors a month; in its best month last year the Sun-Times got 3,982,000, according to Nielsen Online.) "Papers have always relied on bells and whistles, but a lot of people skipped by those bells and whistles. You can't tell me everybody who reads the Tribune is reading the gardening column." No, I thought, I certainly can't tell him that.
He went on, "Certainly there's some portion of the audience that does buy the Tribune for its bells and whistles. But a lot more buy it because they're interested in the news. Maybe we give up some small chunk of the audience, but we gain because we're setting out a really clean set of things we say we do and do well. We have a clear mission and a clear focus and we don't do anything outside of that. We're not trying to reproduce newspapers online. We're trying to give people the information they need to be smart citizens."
Dougherty went on to say that people don't go online to visit his Web site anyway. Google News is their front page, and if they spot a link to a Chi-Town Daily News story that interests them, they'll go read it. "It's just a different dynamic," he said.
I don't know—can you peddle news when it sounds like castor oil? Dougherty is invoking journalism's highest principles; but Cynthia Typaldos has a bead on human nature.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.