Walter Isaacson, writing this month’s Time cover story, hopes that 2009 will see the dawn of ‘a bold, old idea’ for funding newspapers online. Micropayments. It is an old idea, it’s true. Clay Shirky made the case against micropayments back in 2000, and Andrew Odlyzkow in 2003. Isaacson makes the point that Apple have made a success of a micropayment system through iTunes:
Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry
and neatly elides the point that illegal (free) downloading far outstrips any kind of legal, micropayment driven download service. Making the point that iTunes makes money from micropayments; ergo, newspapers should charge per article ignores the fact that music isn’t one kind of orange, and newspaper content just another kind of, slightly cheaper, orange. While, say, the work of star columnists might be comparable to music – as in, something a consumer will seek out, and consequently might be willing to pay for – the constantly shifting product of news desks is not something people will seek out, and pay to keep. That 99 cent for an iTunes track is a payment for something you can listen to again and again. A news story isn’t something you rediscover when your ipod’s on shuffle six months down the line. Paying half a cent for it is half a cent too much, and not only because of its built in redundancy.