There’s lots of agonising about whether news websites should start charging readers at the moment. My initial reaction is that it could (and does) work for those with time-sensitive and exclusive content but for most general news sources it’s a road to tiny audiences. But, then, I don’t currently read any news websites when they’re free, so I’m hardly the target market for a pay-for version. Are there any websites I would pay for though?
I’ve been wondering this for the past couple of days. If all of the websites I read regularly — professional sites, weblogs, Delicious feeds, everything — began charging tomorrow, which ones would I be prepared to pay for? It’s a tricky question with lots of variables (not least what they’d charge) but I thought I’d choose five and see what that choice revealed:
Daring Fireball is, I think, the only content website (as opposed to service, like Flickr) I have already paid for. When the only way to get an RSS feed of complete articles was to pay an annual subscription I happily coughed up. John Gruber provides a well curated selection of links and comments on news related to Apple and its competitors (which saves me trawling several other sites for the important stuff) plus occasional longer articles that are always well thought out and cut through nonsense. He feels to me a bit like a Jon Stewart for the Apple/tech (and typography and Kubrick and…) worlds and I wish more worlds had people like him/Stewart.
Kottke.org is probably a site I should have paid for but I don’t think I did — when Jason did his year of reader-funded blogging I’m not sure I ever quite got round to contributing. Sorry. His relentless roundup of “liberal arts 2.0” is always fascinating and makes me realise how much work it would take to be a consistently interesting blogger. It seems simple — “he’s just pointing at stuff” — but finding all the stuff worth pointing at is an effort worth paying for.
If I was going to give up all my other feeds of links I’d probably want to pay for David Smith’s Preoccupations feed. You could probably replace his work with that of your own omnivorous friend but for me he covers pretty much all the stuff I’d want someone to point out if I charged them with the task of reading the news for me. There’s little comment, just a few quotes, but if I read this and nothing more I wouldn’t feel like I was missing much important.
That’s three I’d pay for, and then I’m stuck. I’d miss my friends on Haddock Blogs but I’m confused about whether I’d have to pay nothing (because I run it) or an awful lot of money (because it aggregates so many sites). Waxy’s links are great but I only started reading a few months ago and I currently have 71 unread so I’m not sure how much I’d miss them. Richard Herring’s Warming Up would be good value for money and although I can’t keep up with it right now, if I could only afford to read a few sites I’d be more likely to keep up with his daily posts. Boing Boing is a candidate as a huge round-up of mostly interesting stuff, but I haven’t got round to reading it for weeks now. I’d miss more things written by friends but maybe they don’t count as they’d give me free accounts for their sites? Please?
There are two interesting things about this exercise.
First, none of these sites are the kinds of “mainstream” news websites that are currently agonising over how to fund themselves. If I don’t read them now, why would I bother if I had to pay? I only pop on to BBC News when I haven’t heard any news for a couple of days and I want to make sure the world hasn’t ended. Mainstream sites aren’t a good enough filter onto the important stuff for me to pay for.
Second, and however, most of the sites I would pay for rely on many other sites — much of their focus is pointing at, discussing and quoting other sources. If, in my money-grabbing scenario, all websites charged for access, could John Gruber, Kottke, David Smith, Waxy, Boing Boing, et al afford to keep going? All the sites they currently comb for interesting nuggets to share would cost money. Blogging would suddenly become a much more expensive hobby or profession. Its commentary on and curation of the world is only sustainable because the overheads are so low.
If all sites, or only all mainstream sites, start charging, bloggers will either have to pay money for their sources, find new sources, or write more original material and less commentary. None of which is great for bloggers, but also not for mainstream news — no one will be pointing at them any more.