Business model ballyhoo: the micropayment idea

The notion of a business model for online journalism, one that is both reasonable and money-making, is a topic that gets tossed around in some form or another every year at the International Symposium on Online Journalism. But now, perhaps more than ever, the issue is at its most relevant, with The New York TImes announcing its planned move to a pay model, and the almost complete certainty that other organizations will follow suit.

That is where Geoffrey Graybeal comes in. Along with co-author Jameson Hayes, Graybeal, a journalism professor and PhD student in the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, is the author of The Case for a Modified News Micropayment Model on the Social Web, a paper that explores the idea of small, per-article payments of perhaps one to five dollars.

“The paper looks at the existing literature, both industry and academic, on the topic in the last 10 to 15 years, and is largely theoretical in the way it analyzes the issue,” Graybeal said. “This idea is nothing new though, when the web first started there was talk of a business model and micropayments and the like.”

The model that Graybeal and Hayes explicitly look at in the paper contains four primary factors that make the idea of micropayments a feasible and attractive idea. The first is the concept of socialization and sharing.

“The idea of socialization and sharing comes from the notion of being a trusted source,” Graybeal said. “On Twitter, I will retweet links and stories from people I follow. A former classmate of mine, when she posts news on Facebook and Twitter, I will look at it, because I know if she puts it up, I will trust it. Now, if organizations start charging for content, how do I know that I should follow a link if I am going to have to pay for it? You trust the people you know and that are in your peer network.”

The second major aspect of the concept is the idea of microearning, in which users can earn credits via things like attracting readers to stories. The catch, however, is that the credits do not necessarily have to be real dollars and cents.

“Look at hotels,” Graybeal said. “They have rewards programs that allow customers to earn points, and news outlets could move to this and retain control over their content. Think of things like Times Tender or Wall Street Journal Bucks.

Next on the list of factors is something that anyone close to the journalism industry recently has heard, the notion of local focus.

“This deals with the idea of the competition factor,” Graybeal said. “The question that says somebody else will have this information for free, so why should I pay for it? With local newspapers and news outlets, that is often the only place that you can get that information. If local stories went to micropayments, there would not be free alternatives. Nobody else is going to that school board meeting. Local news organizations can determine their own sort of currency.”

The final factor is the idea of a centralized banking system, whereby users can convert some of the points they earn into real currency, via things like Google Checkout and PayPal

The paper is sure to be fascinating and should garner plenty of attention at the symposium this year, a factor that is always uplifting for first time attendees like Graybeal.

You can learn more about Geoffrey Graybeal at his personal website and on Twitter.