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Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME, disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula "morally abhorrent" and also "economically self-defeating." That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication's primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue. When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, Dr. Johnson said, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Journalism's fortnight is upon us, and I suspect that 2009 will be remembered as the year news organizations realized that further rounds of cost-cutting would not stave off the hangman. (See the top 10 magazine covers of 2008.)
One option for survival being tried by some publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor and the Detroit Free Press, is to eliminate or drastically cut their print editions and focus on their free websites. Others may try to ride out the long winter, hope that their competitors die and pray that they will grab a large enough share of advertising to make a profitable go of it as free sites. That's fine. We need a variety of competing strategies.
These approaches, however, still make a publication completely beholden to its advertisers. So I am hoping that this year will see the dawn of a bold, old idea that will provide yet another option that some news organizations might choose: getting paid by users for the services they provide and the journalism they produce.
This notion of charging for content is an old idea not simply because newspapers and magazines have been doing it for more than four centuries. It's also something they used to do at the dawn of the online era, in the early 1990s. Back then there were a passel of online service companies, such as Prodigy, CompuServe, Delphi and AOL. They used to charge users for the minutes people spent online, and it was naturally in their interest to keep the users online for as long as possible. As a result, good content was valued. When I was in charge of TIME's nascent online-media department back then, every year or so we would play off AOL and CompuServe; one year the bidding for our magazine and bulletin boards reached $1 million.