Here's a funny question: Did you pay to read this?
It's funny because it has two obvious and opposite answers. If you're at your kitchen table holding the paper, then, of course, you paid. On the other hand, if you're reading this on your home computer or office workstation, then, of course, you didn't pay. Everyone knows reading news online is free.
It's so rigidly free, in fact, that most newspapers that have tried to charge for their content have found such efforts to be a bit like pulling the sword from the stone. One pretender after another has slunk away, amid derisive shouts from the crowd.
These days, newspapers' print operations are becoming gaunt, shedding ever more staff in exchange for ever fewer readers - all while their online counterparts are breaking traffic and readership records with regularity.
Last month, the Pew Research Center signaled that the tectonic shift we'd been expecting had finally arrived. For the first time, more Americans were getting their news from the Web than from newspapers.
Another Pew finding rang a louder knell yet: Among people under 30, the Internet is now tied with TV as the leading source for national and international news. Printed newspapers ran a distant third, even though they tend to produce most of the interesting news content on the Web. The upward trend line of Web news and the downward slope of print suggest - strongly - that the right survival strategy for news organizations is to worry less about saving the papers and start getting creative about converting online success into real revenue.
Although specialized publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports have successfully charged subscription fees, most analysts doubt that general circulation newspapers could get away with it.
So instead of paying in advance for all of a paper's online content, what if you paid a teeny tiny fee every time you read an online article or a blog post? Say you want to read last night's Lakers story - when you load the Web page, the Los Angeles Times might bill you half a penny. Then, if you wanted to jump to the latest Washington politics story, you'd pay half a penny more. These kinds of small-scale revenues are called "micropayments." It's not unlike iTunes, which now charges between 69 cents and $1.29 a song.
But the micropayment lore is also rife with ghost stories of tech companies that tried to mine the tiny money niche. Some couldn't find enough interested consumers, others couldn't find enough interested content providers. Clay Shirky is a digital media consultant in New York who's pointed to a number of faults with a pay-as-you-go system, including that it would terminally annoy readers. Moreover, he believes, the moment any group of outlets starts charging for news content, a new crop of sites will arrive to offer the same content for free - and scoop up all the advertisers abandoned by the pay sites.
But even though his anti-micropayment manifestoes have been online for years, Shirky said, last week he received an unusual number of calls from reporters asking him about the theory, suggesting to Shirky that desperate newspaper types are "rummaging around" for revenue ideas. "I haven't talked to anybody about this stuff since the last recession," he said. "I don't get any interest except when it's a Hail Mary play."
William Baker, a professor who is investigating new-media business models at Columbia University, is more optimistic about micropayments. "Normally no one would take this risk because it's a scary jump," he said. "On the other hand, the economy is so terrible now that it may force some entities to try."
It's easy to imagine a kind of news network that would contain, say, 5,000 online magazines, newspapers and blogs. Every member of the network would be connected to the same pay system, so that the user could seamlessly navigate from one site to the next. Each time you loaded a page, you'd be charged a small amount, and a meter on your screen would allow you to keep track of your balance.
There are plenty of technical questions about how such a system would be implemented, but the question that trumps all the others is simply: Would you, the news reader, consider paying for the same journalism that has been free for more than a decade?