Let’s Try The Craigslist Model Again Or ASCAP Or …

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Credit: Flickr/Alex Barth

imageStartling news from the American Press Institute: newspapers need to make online content pay. Oh, and it’s time for a national online classifieds platform to fight Craigslist or, as API put it in a white paper, “a powerful unified national brand.” In fact, as Poynter analyst Rick Edmond explains, API presented a white paper on each issue to the newspaper industry execs who gathered in suburban Chicago last week to look for solutions.

Some people could see this as putting a finger in a dike that’s about to spew. Fair enough. It also wouldn’t be hard to go the clueless route or the Carly Simon Carole King route — as in “it’s too late, baby.” But let’s go in a different direction, at least with the paid content phase: it’s about gaining consensus from at least a large chunk of publishers so the ones who try paywalls, micropayments or any other form of paid content that shifts from the ad-supported online/print subscription model will have plenty of company. If only a few try it, failure is almost preordained. If more than a few give it a serious try, the aura shifts. Ubiquity — not uniformity — will make the difference. That, and having technology that works, payments systems that don’t frustrate, and the ability to figure out how to woo advertisers with quality more than quantity.

But how to achieve that under current antitrust law? One way is to share industry research that points in certain directions; another is to talk publicly about choices. The WSJ raises an intriguing idea about how newspapers might be able to legally band together and demand/collect payment from websites: think along the lines of how the music labels grapple with antitrust via the ASCAP model. ASCAP and BMI collect money for song use, then distribute it based on a formula. The fees vary according to the kind of outlet, audience size, type of performance. ASCAP, as the WSJ points out, has faced challenges about its legality and won because it has been able to show artists can’t successfully monitor how their work is used. BMI was created to make sure ASCAP didn’t have a monopoly.

The trick for newspapers, antitrust expert Herbert Hovenkamp told the Journal, would be to avoid exclusive agreements and show that the intermediary can accomplish something publishers can’t do individually. I’d think it would be difficult for an existing industry association to be the intermediary.

There’s no shortage of others who think they could provide a similar service or some other solution that could stretch across publishers without setting prices or other raising other antitrust problems. In addition to the Steve Brill presentation for Journalism Online and one from Attributor, turns out the publishers heard from self-proclaimed newsosaur Alan Mutter. After Neiman Labs reported his involvement, Mutter went public with his ideas. Partnering with a fellow Silicon Valley serial CEO, Mutter proposes something called ViewPass: “a single, ubiquitous brand to enable consumers to access valuable content on the websites and mobile platforms of all participating publishers. It would be deployed as a widely recognized and widely accepted brand in a manner similar to the way Visa cards were established by the banking industry as a ready substitute for cash.” He provides more details in his own column — and says “we believe the industry could rapidly triple its online margins by adopting ViewPass.” (Mutter also helpfully explains the flaws he sees in the other models.)

As for the Craigslist wannabe, maybe there’s something viable there. But how many of these platforms can an industry handle, especially when I can’t think of a previous new national newspaper technology platform that’s worked. If you can, the comments are open.

Photo Credit: Flickr/fimoculous

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