ViewPass: A backwards monetization idea

Alan Mutter, the newspaper man turned Silicon Valley CEO who has a terrific blog about journalism called Newsosaur, came clean over the weekend about having been one of three parties who made a presentation to the hush-hush summit meeting of newspaper executives in Chicago last week.

Mutter writes that he has an idea to solve the problem discussed at the confab, how to monetize online content. His proposal, in partnership with fellow CEO type Ridgely Evers, is called ViewPass.

“ViewPass would consist of a simple, one-time registration system that would remember users as they moved among participating websites,” Mutter writes. “It would build a profile of individual users from demographic information supplied by them, as well as by tracking the content they viewed as they moved from site to site.

“Like many of the several monetization systems coming to market, ViewPass would support payments for individual articles, subscriptions and bundles of content.”

In other words, you register once, and that allows you to seamlessly pay for content in various package sizes, while the content providers collect information about you and your reading habits, which allows advertisers to better market to you.

Mutter again: “The system’s greatest value would be the data it assembled on each individual consumer, because the data would enable publishers to sell their advertising inventory at premium rates to advertisers seeking to target their messages to the most likely consumers.”

This is a great idea, except it’s exactly backwards and totally wrong.

Let me get this straight: I, faithful reader, am supposed to pay money for content I now get for free, and I have to let the publications harvest personal information so they can market to me?

Do I look stupid?

That personal information is an asset of mine that I am sometimes willing to sell, but not always. It is a thing that has value. Mutter says so himself: “The system’s greatest value would be the data it assembled on each individual consumer.”

If a publication thinks it would benefit from having that thing of value, it should make me an offer. I’m open for business.

The grocery store gives me discounts and coupons in exchange for information about my buying patterns so it can market effectively to me. It seems like a square deal, so I take it. I’m not saying my information’s worth millions. But it’s worth a little sumpn-sumpn. I’m certainly not going to pay you to take it from me.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this: When I have to register to read something, even if it’s otherwise free, I usually decline. It’s just not worth the effort. Never mind cash money, that effort alone is already a payment I’m not willing to make. Rare is the information I can’t get elsewhere without having to jump through some hoop.

And if I really can’t get it elsewhere and have to register, I always lie. Why? Because I don’t want to give away something, true information about myself, that I can sell, to an organization that I thought was going to provide me a service, but has now turned into a pain in my ass.

So the advertiser that gets my information from the publication that harvested it by making me register gets bad information and wastes its money by trying to sell me something that might be interesting to a 22-year-old who lives in Arizona.

But otherwise, yeah, great idea. I’m sure people will be lining up to go through the chore of registering. I’m sure the masses will be clamoring to give away personal information that other businesses pay them for, panting at the chance to pay for previously free content that they can get elsewhere pretty easily.

Thank goodness, journalism is saved.

Newspapers: Shut up and charge already

“I’m all for an antitrust exemption for newspapers so they can all get together and charge. And get their demise over with.”

I tweeted that the other day. Beau Dure of USA Today, who always asks good questions, wondered, via Facebook, “Did a newspaper delivery person knock over your mailbox or something?”

Are you kidding? The delivery person is one of the few people in the newspaper business who actually delivers something of value — a hunk of birdcage liner! Hey that’s pretty good. Only took me a week to think of it.

It’s just that I’m sick of all these panel discussions and secret meetings and statements of purpose about how newspapers are going to get readers to pay for their basic content online, and/or save the print product. It’s like this endless debate about a question that’s been settled. The answer: They’re not. Can we please move on?

Here’s the editor of the Wall Street Journal — which, unlike almost every other newspaper in the country, has content specialized and distinctive enough that people will pay to read it online — complaining about aggregators, especially Google.

“It’s certainly true that readers have been socialised — wrongly I believe — that much content should be free,” the Australian quotes Robert Thomson saying. He’s Australian too so he talks with Brit spelling. “And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognise the value they are trading on that’s created by others.”

Thomson says readers who click to a newspaper story from Google News think they’re reading Google News: “Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator. Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered.”

It sounds ridiculous to me, but when I tweeted about that, several online acquaintances, including Beau, said they’ve seen that phenomenon at work. So OK, I believe it. It happens.

But do those people matter? If you don’t even pay attention to whether you’re reading something on a newspaper’s Web site or on Google News, you’re not likely to become a paying customer of either. I don’t pay enough attention to “American Idol” to know which one of the recent finalists is Kris Allen and which one is Adam Lambert, so I’m not likely to buy either one’s next record. I don’t matter to them. I’m not the customer.

If that’s the future business model for newspapers — to get the people who are too dumb or inattentive to even know what they’re reading to pay for it — well, now you know why I’m ready for them to figure out that this matter has been settled. It’s like listening to someone who talks painfully slowly explaining something you already know.

I don’t know how slowly Thomson talks, but here’s some more from the Australian article:

“Thomson argued aggregators ‘need to be honest in their role as deliverers of other people’s content.’ And as those sites were exploiting the value of mainstream media content, ‘we have to be at least as clever as they are in understanding the value of our own content.'”

Exactly! He and others in our racket act like it’s some kind of vexing mystery, figuring out the value of something, in this case content. But it couldn’t be simpler: Put a price on it. That’s how you “understand the value” of your hooptie when you offer it for sale on Craigslist, right? If you ask for too much, nobody calls.

So, I wish newspapers would quit talking about this stuff and just start charging. They’ll quickly “understand the value” of their content, which, with rare exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, is something very much like zero, and then get to the real business at hand, which isn’t figuring out how to get people to pay for newspaper Web content, it’s how news organizations can generate enough revenue to do the important work they need to do.

Solutions to that problem almost certainly exist. The sooner the industry quits working over questions that have already been answered, the sooner we’ll find them.