Sometimes when you need an answer, you have to turn to the cause of the problem. This is ostensibly what the Newspaper Association of America did when it approached the world's leading technology companies for ideas on how to charge for online news. IBM (NYSE: IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) – often the target of much of the blame for the printed community's current predicament – responded to the query.
The two-part solution involves developing the appropriate infrastructure, which falls right into the technology companies' domain, and finding a way to get readers to pay – the crux of the problem newspapers are facing. The results of the survey were posted on the Nieman Journalism Lab's website. The 11 responses offer a variety of approaches.
Google, for example, proposes a micro-payment system, claiming that "'open' need not mean free." The solution involves a variation of the Google Checkout system used for online payment processing. Readers would use this account from one news site to the next, paying per article. Revenue would be shared in a manner reminiscent of Amazon's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Kindle, Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iTunes App Store and Google's own Android Market.
For many publications, technology is not the problem. There are plenty of ways to use zeros and ones to control the flow of information and process electronic payments. Rather, fear is the issue. Publishers across the country are worried about alienating their readers, which makes them wary of the fee-for-content model.
If you take the people at Nieman Journalism Lab at face value, there's little reason to fret. In April, it ran a story celebrating the fact that only 3% of newspaper story reading occurs online, proclaiming that "print is still king." While the dizzying array of calculations may point to that conclusion, a similarly dizzying array of financial data demonstrates the contrary, as circulation numbers, ad sales and total revenue continue to suffer. Also, it doesn't account for the fact that many readers pick up their news from sites not associated with newspapers (like you, for example).
Meanwhile, the newspaper industry's approach to charging for online content is still far from uniform. Some publications make everything available, others require registration at some point (from immediately to after reading a certain number of articles) and a few charge for premium content. And, today's approach may not be maintained tomorrow.
So, what are the other suggestions from tech companies? Nieman Journalism Lab highlighted Google's solution, but the rest are only available on the Newspaper Association of America's website – and only for customers. It looks like someone's not afraid to charge for content.