Sunday, February 26, 2006

Making It Pay

Post summary: No one has yet figured out how to "monetize" the provision of content on the internet; bloggers and even large publications are struggling to make any money. Reliance on advertising or clunky schemes like "premium content" are not the answer. However, I believe people would be prepared to pay in small increments of a few cents at a time for online content if it were made easy and simple enough.

This could be done through a "broker" with whom users would have an account, and who would deduct the appropriate amount when a user accessed a participating content provider's site. Content aggregators such as Google, Yahoo or MSN would be obvious candidates to become such brokers, but it could easily be somebody else.

Such a system could support the viability of more small and medium-sized publications and higher-quality blogs; it could even help breathe new life into those venerable media insititutions that are currently failing financially.


In response to Trevor Butterworth's Financial Times article on blogging, many people (myself included) posted comments defending the potential of blogs. In particular, it was felt he had underestimated the possibilities for comment by niche experts, or for a fresher, less constrained journalism.

But there was one point that couldn't be denied: right now, nobody is making much money. Butterworth quoted two women who run a hugely popular gossip site which receives up to 100,000 hits a day as saying that they make "more than a case of beer, but not enough to quit our day jobs".

What he didn't acknowledge was that the puzzle of how to turn traffic into cash is just as tricky for established media and prominent print publications as it is for amateur bloggers. It's become clear that people love sifting through the great shifting sands of information and opinion on the internet. It's just that no one has quite figured out how to appropriately reward those who generate it.

Traditional print media has varied in how it has embraced the internet - ranging from the simplicity, verve and openness of the Observer / Guardian to the tardy, somewhat clunky approach of the likes of the New York Times.

But no one is that far ahead in a business sense. The differences seem to come down to philosophy; the Guardian sees being read as a good thing in itself, a chance to spread and promote their brand. Others have viewed the internet as a threat and have somewhat resentfully posted a minimum number of articles, with the rest protected as "premium content", for which you must pay a fee.

The owners of the New Zealand Herald fall into the latter category. That paper's experiment with "premium content" has been rightly lampooned in the New Zealand blogosphere. I mean, when you can buy the print edition of the Herald for $1.50, and read a huge array of erudite comment from throughout the world for free, are you really going to go to the trouble of getting out your credit card and coughing up $2.99, or whatever, to access the Herald's op-ed writers?

Most magazines and niche publications have gone for a mixed model: they provide a third to a half of their content free online, usually with the requirement of free registration; the rest is available to subscribers only.

Meanwhile, most bloggers continue rely on "pay-per-click" advertising to earn revenue. Overwhelmingly, this is through Google's AdSense scheme. Google makes code available for content providers, such as bloggers, to post on their web sites. Google's robots then automatically check out the content on the web site, and, in theory at least, assign it appropriate ads. Advertisers pay Google for each click on an ad, a portion of which is passed on to the content provider.

There are problems with this model. First, it is open to abuse, both through "click fraud" (people generating artificially large numbers of clicks on their website ads) and by sites set up to be "ad farms". Usually with minimal or no content, these sites simply have large numbers of ads, and often use a misspelling of a popular site (e.g or as a domain name, in order to attract traffic.

Secondly, Google has been less than fully transparent both about what percentage of advertising revenue goes to the content provider, and their process for assigning ads to pages. Sometimes they just seem to be running a big experiment, and I'm not the only one to wonder in frustration how ads are selected for my pages.

In any case, traditional, static ads don't seem to provide a decent revenue stream for anyone. Otherwise there wouldn't be the fuss about "premium content", and respectable sites wouldn't keep throwing up ever more intrusive dynamic ads which crawl across your screen and hover for about 10 seconds before you can close them down. These are infuriating; I don't think they're going to be the answer either.

So, if you count time as money, at the moment pretty much everyone is making a loss. Yet in theory the internet should provide an ideal medium for a great range of publications to be viable. Print publishing has traditionally involved sinking a large amount of money into machinery, paper and distribution, quite apart from assembling the content. And mostly, the audience has been limited by geography. These days, most surviving publications are either very big and corporate, or very small and niche-oriented.

On the internet, however, production and distribution costs are practically zero, and the potential audience is almost unlimited. The maths suggest that with a large audience paying small, even tiny amounts, many different providers should be able to make at least a modest living. So what's going wrong? Why is everybody struggling?

You might answer that the internet is seen as one big freebie and people just aren't prepared to pay directly for the swathes of information they feel it is their right to access. I don't believe that's the case. People are prepared to fritter away their money on things they value less than their online reading. Look at texting, in particular at people's readiness to spend money on text-message voting on music shows such as C4. I myself end up losing about $20-25 per month through overuse of my eftpos card, because it's convenient and I don't notice that I'm paying.

The problem is that payment for internet content is being demanded in the wrong format. Take the online magazine subscription for example. Many of these are pretty cheap. But for not more much more you can get a print subscription. It does make sense to get a print subscription to your favourite couple of magazines. You get to read through all the articles and reviews, do the crosswords, take the magazine to bed and fall asleep with it. You can pile back copies on your bookshelf and let visitors know how erudite / left-wing / neoliberal / avant-garde you are.

But an online subscription? Do you really want to pore over the magazine's entire content hunched in front of your computer? And once you've subscribed to one, where do you stop? The whole point of the internet is that you jump from page to page, searching for content, digesting and comparing opinion. Will you now need to stump up for full access to the 10 or 12 other publications you regularly check? The most interesting premium content might be in The Nation one week, and Science the next.

The unit of payment needs to be much smaller and more flexible. The precedent is Apple's iTunes store, which lets users download songs for 99c a time. Now, a song is a more substantive piece of work than even the hardest-hitting article, so the equivalent would be 5c or even 2c at a time. Let's say you look at 20 news articles (1-2c) in a day, and 10 op-ed pieces (5c). For less than 1/3 of a coffee, you get full content, no scrolling ads, and no annoying need to register.

Even more importantly, it needs to be easy to pay. The reason premium content is doomed is that people just can't be bothered. I have to get out my credit card and enter all my details just to access one article in the Herald? Then I have to do it all over again to read an op-ed in the New York Times? No way. It has to be very straightforward, involving no more than a couple of clicks each time.

How could this happen? You would need somebody to act as a broker for a wide variety of content providers. The broker would set themselves up to accept payments and provide internet users with an account. They would then deduct your little 2c payments from your account each time you wanted to view a web page that carried a price tag. Content providers would sign up with a broker, set their prices, and have their share of the payments passed through to them.

Content aggregators such as Google, Yahoo and MSN could be candidates to act as such brokers. Most people already have a trusting relationship with at least two of these companies, and would be prepared to have them handle their transactions. Users could choose from a range of deals, just as you can pay x cents per text to your cellphone provider, or get unlimited for $10 per month as part of a different plan.

Of course, it could just as well be someone else, and in fact somebody new is perhaps more likely, since exisiting players often find it hard to see past their current paradigm.

In fact, a “brokering” system like I've described already exists in a sense. The comparison is with the major databases which compile medical literature, such as Ovid, or legal and journalistic material, such as LexisNexis. These database providers mainly interact with large institutions such as universities, and members of those insititutions can access the content as part of their study or employment.

The challenge is to adapt this to the democratic, freewheeling, piecemeal exchange of information and views on the wider internet.

If this is possible, everyone could benefit. With only a moderate amount of traffic, bloggers and small-scale magazines would be able to pay the bills and break their dependence on advertising. We should then see a lift in the quality of blogs, the evolution of new forms and styles, and something a bit closer to a democratic media revolution than what we have now.

This is something that serious writers and editors should care about as much as amateur, bedroom-bound bloggers. After years of bemoaning the lack of any consistently quality publication in New Zealand, I was chastened recently to find out that several of my most admired titles, including the New Yorker, make huge losses, and only survive through the patronage of billionaire philanthropists. And, as it was pointed in the comments thread on Trevor Butterworth's article, the Financial Times itself operates in the red.

So, are serious publications just vanity publishing then? Maybe some would be happy to smugly argue that indeed they are nothing more than the self-satisfied twitterings of a cultural elite. But most of us would like to believe this isn't so. Unleashing the economies of scale of the internet offers the chance to prove it, just as it offers the better bedroom op-ed writers fair reward for their labour. The future for blogs is the future for everyone.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Blog on Blog

Financial Times journalist Trevor Butterworth has written a thoughtful, sceptical article on blogging. His mission: to deflate the hype which suggests that blogs are the new big thing and will take over a substantial part of the role of the mainstream media.

He points out that almost no bloggers make any money, and that most political blogging, at least, is parasitical ("fleas sucking from fleas") on traditional media, where people still do real research and write proper, thoughtful articles. He laments the low quality, stream of consciousness style of the 4-5 posts-a-day aesthetic, and wonders what George Orwell or Karl Marx would have been like, had they been able to blog.

Mostly commonsensical stuff, spiced with a bit of traditional journo's defensiveness. He does feel the need to throw in a "but what are blogs" bit; supposedly 62 percent of people still don't know. Hmmm...

The FT have set up a blog for people to comment on the original article, so I thought I'd have my say. I was preceded by about 80 previous comments, though many of them are Trevor responding in full to other people's comments. Apparently he just got kicked out of the wi-fi cafe where he was hanging out - just after I had posted my comment. So I don't know whether I'll get a response to my two cents, which is below:

[start Bidsta comment]
Trevor, great article. I agree with most of what you say: blogs are way overhyped, both as something “new”, and as a challenge to the role of the mainstream media. As you note, the economics are terrible at the moment, even for popular bloggers.

And yes, opinion has now become the new pornography. It’s a flea-on-flea feeding frenzy. And at some point there has to be some meat, so the likes of the New York Times will always be needed to generate some substance and act as an anchor for debates.

You wonder what the ability to blog might have done for writers like Orwell who were overinclined to share their every impression and opinion. It’s true that the ease of publishing leads to an atomization of discourse, and acts against the discipline needed to write something half decent. Every blogger knows the pressure to keep content rolling in order to maintain even the small audience he might have (“post or perish”, you might say).

But I think your discussion is overall a little pessimistic. You look at blogs as a media phenomenon and conclude that they’re not the revolution they’re cracked up to be. But you pass a little lightly over the role they can have in holding the established media to account. The endless dissecting and deconstructing of news articles may get tiresome, but it’s better than just sucking up the scandal mongering and warmed-over press releases forwarded to us by the corporate press.

For the non-Europeans among us who were never able to sift through the erudite alternatives of the Times, The Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent, it’s exciting not to have to simply be passively instructed on “the issues” by an increasingly monolithic media establishment.

Also, though you discuss the LA Times’ disastrous wiki-torial, you don’t mention at all the great triumph of internet democratism: Wikipedia, which is reckoned to be as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and is infinitely more up-to-date and in tune with the zeitgeist. The Invisible Hand of the information market really works!

Is it all just pointless scribbling? Marx was obviously suffering from cabin fever when he grumbled of his and Engels’ journalism that “Ce n’est pas le guerre” – but there’s a flipside to being action-oriented. You can heroically struggle for years, but if no one ever documents it, did it really happen? If so, what did it mean?

I’ve recently been reading John Pilger’s collection of investigative journalism, which besides being heroic, inspiring stuff, gives an understanding of how difficult it can be to take an unpopular angle or uncover something that people have an interest in not knowing about.

It’s just possible that blogs could make this kind of writing easier. At the least, they offer a medium for reporting and opinion which is fresher, more direct, more personal, perhaps more gonzo, than would fit within the constraints of most publications concerned with their advertisers and their circulation.

An example that comes to mind is Steven Vincent’s posts from Iraq (though tragically, he paid for what he wrote with his life). They had an immediacy not matched by anything I’ve seen in the standard media.

So, while blogs are not some revolutionary phenomenon that will render other media obsolescent, they shouldn’t just be dismissed as overheated chatter. At best they might provide a contribution to the truth not found elsewhere. And who knows – someone might even figure out a way to make money from them sometime. [end Bidsta comment]

Of course, the layers of irony get quite dizzying. The article was all about blogging and how it's just flea-sucking ad infinitum. The article, reliant on those very blogs for its topic, itself became a blog, where it has attracted blog comments. Now here I am, indulgently blogging on the comments on the blog of the comment on the blogs.

I guess while we're examining our navels, civilization might just collapse. Now that would make an interesting post.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dawn Choruses

The good news: when Wellington composer Nic MacGowan broadcast a 25-minue "futuristic concert" consisting of wailing sounds dubbed the Synth Birds of Dawn, at 6:30 am from the hills surrounding Island Bay, at least eleven people complained to noise control.

It's heartening that people are now prepared to demand the same respect for peace in the morning hours, as in the evening.

On the other hand, McGowan was clearly unrepentant, and of the view that complaints were driven by mere philistinism. He appeared on the front page of the Dominion Post, defiant on a hilltop beside his Dawn Synth machine. The sounds had apparently been inspired by the dawn chorus and, god forbid, church bells.

The synthesizers and speakers on three hilltops were intended to create "soft creature-like tones" across the valley. "We were basically playing Island Bay like an instrument" he said. "it was an incredible sound, you get all these slapback echoes".

Right on. But get this, dude. At 6:30 am, many people are bloody well sleeping. I wouldn't care if it were the choirs of seraphim themselves that were singing - my response would be the same as when the unidentified council contractor chose 6:55 am as a good time to clean up the verge outside my window with a weedeater the other day.

In our rather frantic modern existence, sleep is a rare, precious commodity. And for me, and I suspect quite a few others, it is sweetest of all in the early hours of the morning. As much as we try and squeeze ourselves into the 9-5 mould demanded by this society, our metabolisms know better. You early risers are welcome to leap out of bed before the crack of dawn - but please, give us the same respect as we do to you when you stagger off to bed bleary-eyed at 10pm.

The upshot of the compaints were that McGowan decided to shift the time of his second "concert" planned for the following morning - to 7:30 am. I'm just glad I live very far away from Island Bay.

In the end, though, I understand his creative urges. So I'd like to pass this message to the misunderstood composer:

Nic, I too was disappointed that many Island Bay residents failed to appreciate your futuristic and innovative concert the other morning. I appreciate what you were trying to do.

You see, I'm an aspiring experimental musician too. Right now I'm interested in the sounds created by the interaction of organic and industrial objects. One thing I'd like to do is take a stick, a piece of driftwood, maybe, and run it up and down the colorsteel roof of a house. The driftwood the bow; the roof the instrument. A meeting of the driftwood's weathered curves, shaped by wind and tide, with the rigidly corrugated, industrial surface of the steel. You know?

Nic, can I come over and do it at your place? I would "play" your house. I'll be over to do a 30 -minute concert, ok? Starting at 11:30 pm on Tuesday night?

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Daily Minion is Online

The Daily Minion is a New Zealand-slanted news satire and absurdist site, which is now up and running at:

It is in pretty rudimentary form at present. Depending on feedback, it may be enhanced and expanded in the future with more images, more sophisticated layout and some interactive elements.

Despite the title, it will not be updated daily. Nor is there the intention to produce entirely new "issues" on a regular basis. Rather, the content will be updated on a rolling basis, with new content being added to the front page and the old content being retired to the archives (under the headings of news, sport, entertainment, etc. that you can see on the left-hand menu).

Any feedback would be welcomed. The editorial staff can be contacted at There is also a link to this address on the site itself.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Social Lives

I'm wondering what other people think who've moved to a new town or returned somewhere after a significant absence. How hard is it to meet people and make friends? How does New Zealand compare to other places? How does Wellington?

Those who know me will know that this is a favourite topic. Several different things have set me to thinking about it again recently.

One: in an idle moment, following a couple of links from David Farrar's blog (I don't recommend doing this too often; you will waste a lot of time), I ended up reading about the tortured social and sexual interactions of a group of Auckland twentysomethings. One girl in particular appeared to be quite a nasty piece of work. But one comment on her blog (which was one of the links from DPF's site), gave me pause. To paraphrase, she said:

"Anyway, why would anyone want to hang out with people they don't know? If you don't have your own friends already you must be a total loser"

Though her thoughts and actions, described on her own blog and elsewhere, appeared to border on the sociopathic, this rang true; maybe she was just being open and unabashed about what seems to be a widely (if perhaps subconsciously) held view.

This would explain why it's so tortuous trying to make friends in this country. If you don't already have a set of "mates", you're a bit suspect -- and this of course exacerbates the problem.

Another stimulus for thinking about this issue was a visit from a friend who lives in Sydney and is thinking about moving to Wellington with his girlfriend. We went out for dinner and drinks last weekend, which was, of course, sevens weekend. Wellington was alive with the carnival spirit, full of bonhomie and joie de vivre (you see, us Anglo Saxons don't even have the right words). We had a great time; it was really difficult trying to convince him it's not normally like that. He in turn claimed that Sydney was truly unfriendly, and wouldn't believe that Wellington was worse.

Another was this amusing article by Will Hide in the Observer about going looking for romance in New York. He writes:

Second, if you're alone but hoping not to be, Americans are much more approachable than we British, be it at the food store, the pub or the gym. You can chat to complete strangers without feeling like a total psycho. Third, if you're simply on your own and happy that way, New York is a great place just to hang out because everyone does it. Going to the cinema alone in Britain? Sad git. Going to the cinema alone in New York? Hey, cool, a chance for some quality 'me' time. Lunch for one in Blighty? Obviously Billy No-mates. Lunch for one in Manhattan? Alluring. A bit mysterious even.

Swap "New Zealand" for "Britain" in this passage, and the above is a pretty fair description of attitudes.

After much discussion and argument on this topic, I've modified my views a little bit. First, it's not fair to make comparisons with travelling, when you always meet people and make friends - partly because you run into a lot of like-minded people, partly because you're perceived as exotic and interesting, and partly because you yourself behave more openly.

Secondly, there's a continuum here. New Zealand is probably better than, say, northern England. Wellington is better than Christchurch. The United States has a noticeably more open social culture, at least in major urban areas. Very big cities are best of all -- it seems strange to me that many pople don't like the big-city anonymity which allows you to reinvent and renew yourself, and consequently seems to make people more open and interesting.

But it's frustrating to read the advice that pops up on places like MSN about how to get over your breakup / meet "dates" / lose weight / look for a new career. This is specific to the American context, and is always telling you to get involved and join things, where you're bound to meet lots of like-minded people.

Thing is, I've got involved in or joined several things in my life here. All of them were because I particularly wanted to do the relevant activity, rather than to meet people--though I certainly would have been open to that. But in all cases, it was the wider social situation writ small. People were always nice enough, but as soon as said activity was over we usually all disappeared back to our own lives as quickly as possible.

One thing driving this is of course the tyranny of the couple, which dominates social interactions of every type in Wellington. It's extraordinary; in Third World, Catholic Peru, there seemed to be hordes of people who were at least in principle single. In secular, late-marrying, urban, highly educated Wellington, the single person over 25 is practically an endangered species.

Supposedly there's a surplus of single women in this town (the fabled "man drought"). If so, it seems they have decided to protest the demographic imbalance by collectively going into hiding.

But I digress -- that's all for another post. Even if you discount way mass coupledom limits socialising -- since two people have exponentially more inertia than one -- it's just really hard to get social traction in this town. If you do join something, or start a new job, don't expect people to go "Hey - you're new. Do you want to come with us to have a drink / go to the game / watch a movie?" That's American stuff. Everyone will be off to hang out with their "partner" or "mates", and will expect that you will too.

If you're around for, say a year, there may be some kind of compulsory social event (say, a company party, or end-of-season prizegiving) where people from the group will see you out of the normal context and figure that you might be non-toxic. Over a couple of drinks, you might find some common ground with one or two people. Perhaps you strike a rapport, which could even lead to hanging out with them again. But you must be patient.

Anyway, this is just me opining, when I'd asked for other views. Maybe it's just me. What do you think? Has anyone else experienced the same problems? Is New Zealand any worse than anywhere else?

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Charged with Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

A couple of days ago, "Once Were Warriors" director Lee Tamahori was arrested in Los Angeles in a police sting operation while wearing a woman's dress and wig. He had offered an undercover policeman sex in exchange for money, and was charged with prostitution and loitering in a public place.

While this news will have shocked or titillated some, my main reactions were:

1. They still run "sting" operations to catch transvestites soliciting? An undercover cop sits all night in a car and waits to snare unwary prostitutes so they can be charged with a misdemeanour? Is this really the wisest use of police resources?

2. You can get arrested for loitering?? Wow. I thought that was a joke about how in LA you can get charged with walking, but I guess not.