Looking back to look ahead

Interesting project underway in the US where the questions of how we came to be where we are in journalism are now being examined with the benefit of hindsight.

According to CNN, a trio of leading digerati are publishing an oral history project looking at the “original digital sin” of giving content away for free – which is currently being blamed for all the woes that journalism is facing at the moment, especially in the US.

The Digital Riptide project will have 50+ hours of video and testimony from those who were there at the start, and examine the decisions taken about whether content should be charged for or given away for free.

Some of the points raised are very true – at the start online was all about page views and eyeballs – traffic was the original currency, not actual money, as news organisations sought to establish their presence on the new World Wide Web.

However, it’s also true that while the technology of content delivery has developed incredibly quickly over the past 20 years, especially in relation to video in the last ten years, the technology of enabling people to make seamless micro-payments for content has not.

The researchers are looking ahead at what the future holds for journalism and the business models supporting them, and the inventor of the world-wide web (and UAL Fellow), Sir Tim Berners-Lee, agrees about the payment issues – he told the team:

“One of the solutions may be to get payment protocols on the web – new payment protocols – so it’s easy for me, as I read your blog or as I read your journal, the output of your journalism, I might be able to tell my browser, ‘You know what? Whenever I really enjoy an article, I’m going to hit this button, and I want to pay the guy who wrote it’ … because I really appreciate that.”

The researchers seem rather sniffy about that, claiming there’s already too much free content out there and they don’t think “asking people to pay a nickel every time is going to add up to enough to make it work.”

Well, you don’t know until you try – certainly the maths holds up: if you have an article that is read by 50,000 people and 10% like it enough to pay a nickel (five cents) then the author would receive $250, which is, coincidentally, what many magazines and papers currently pay for a feature article.

So, given this scepticism, it will be interesting to see what they come up with when the site goes live on September 9 – whether it helps the publishers and content producers of the future remains to be seen.

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