As new arrivals to San Francisco, we were advised to look in the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle for some interesting local things to do, especially things that we could do with our nearly four year old son. Instead of heading straight for the web version, I decided to find a physical copy of the paper and buy it. In the end I just couldn't do it, but I had a few interesting thoughts on the way.
There were several reasons for this noble acquisition plan, including knowing that the newspaper business is in a pretty awful state for various reasons, including most obviously the current economic disaster, but also partly because lifelong avid newspaper readers like me do nearly all their avid reading online which nets the newspaper no cover charge, and maybe not much advertising either, since like many others, I use Firefox to block the ads. At least, until recenctly that is.
However, partly because I really do think that (serious) newspapers are important (see my earlier blog on the npr job cuts) and I do want to see them survive and indeed offer more and better serious reporting and analysis, I switched adblocking off, and now deliberately try to look at some ads which I think might be interesting.
Usually, I confess, I do this because some of the better ads stimulate a thought about something I might want to write about, but also I do it because if ads are about the only way that thoughtful online media are going to survive, I had better try to help.
Nor is this idle or idealistic altruism: this very blog is powered by Google Adwords. I am guessing that the revenue I generate thereby gives new meaning to the concept micro-finance, but never mind, I am a professional writer and professionals also need to get paid, at least in theory.
Are online ads the future of financing for serious newspapers and serious authors? On the one hand it seems trivial and demoralising to think that fine thought shall be subsidised by base advertising (I hope saying this doesn't contravene the terms of the Google Adwords legal tome I signed). On the other hand, how else shall writing get paid for?
There aren't many options: if you sell enough books and have a decent royalty agreement you may be able to live off it, but writers able to do this are few and far between, and you had better keep churning those hits out, unless you happen by chance to be the author of Harry Potter, in which case you are probably off the hook unless you were investing in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
If you write for a newspaper, magazine or trade journal, you may be on staff (or just terminated) or you may get paid by the word, which is alright at anything close to a dollar a word, but pity one writer who recently dropped from a steady $2 a word to ten cents. Either way, because of the wider revenue problem, in part due to online viewing and economic shinkage, there is surely less periodical money available to pay writers.
Historically the other options that evolved were begging, patronage and subscriptions (there may be others, but this is what springs to mind). The painter Hogarth finally began to prosper with subscriptions, but he was still ultimately selling molecules. I have not heard many stories of the web being a happy hunting ground for subscriptions for anything that is virtual, with the exception of specialist publications which will help you directly make or save money - Energy Intelligence springs to mind, and there are quite a lot of financial offerings in this realm. As for patronage, a cursory study of classical music and fine art will show you that that path is littered with pettiness, misery and wasted lives.
So where does that leave us? Subscriptions sound like a good idea, but mostly don't work on the Internet (or do they? If you know, do tell.) Advertising works for Google and Yahoo and some others - if it works for the famous newspapers, why are they firing so many well known writers? It surely cannot be compensating for the downturn in hard copy sales.
We can all see that the business script is getting into a rather blue if not downright noir phase, and it is not clear what will emerge from this turbid scene. However, for those of a greenish hue there is at least a kind of silver lining to all this.
One of the curious things about serious newspapers is that the more serious they are the fatter they are. This is not because they are full of exegetical wisdom and weighty accretions of sagacious curiosity - though they might be - but rather because they are stuffed with advertising. The Times of London or New York, especially on Sundays, is a massive tome that would have made Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn shrink back in awe, but how it could it only cost a dollar or a pound (or thereabouts)? In fact, only with the gutter press does the cover price really cover much of the cost of producing the epistle.
So the irony is that it has long been the case that serious newspapers have relied on indirectly persuading their readers to engage in buying as much stuff as possible, much of which helps to wreck the very planet that more and more serious readers worry about, or at least say they worry about. The dramatic reduction in newspaper sales that is certainly apparent in the United States is directly saving a lot of trees, energy and water from being consumed and a lot of toxins from being generated at the point of manufacture and a lot of waste paper that won't need to be recycled, landfilled or burnt.
That's why I could not bring myself to buy the three inch slab of the San Francisco Chronicle, just to get to the pink sliver of local events. I felt bad about it, and in some ways even worse when I discovered the contents online.
So yes, it will be a good thing if newspapers go on a diet and go back to being lissom creatures of less than a hundred pages, but what will the economics look like? Pretty awful unless something dramatic changes.
The only golden lining (inside the Golden Fleece?) that I can think of is something I have been wondering about for well over a decade: the idea of online micro-payments. We have micro-lending now, from Surinam to San Francisco, we have burgeoning social media instruments and a lot of online transactions, can it finally be possible to have micro-payments?
And here is a twist, that may make it one day more interesting and perhaps easier to enact: create the online micro-finance system as its own local non-dollar based currency. That may sound nutty, but one day the dollar may take a real tumble, and having some alternatives to it, just like having some alternatives to fossil fuels, may turn out to have been a really good idea. In the interim, it may make it is easier and safer to build such system and get it accepted. It could also be tied into online ads, carbon credits or offsets (maybe), and many other green and beneficial ideas. Who knows, it could even help solve some of America's staggering debt and California's budget deficit. Oh yes, and pay a few hard-pressed writers.