Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.

  • I enjoyed this analysys. What is left unanswered is the degree to which the revenue required to operate the online news site is covered by advertising,.Furtheremore, if there might be a mechanism to fund the cost of the entire operation through the sale of advertising space.

  • Stan Hogan

    The idea of rewarding readers for their behavior is quite intriguing. It might be a technological nightmare right now but maybe not so much next week. Fascinating indeed.

    But I think you went off the tracks a bit with this, Jeff: “I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.”

    What you are describing and summarily discarding is the very definition of your so-called “link economy.”

  • “Reverse Meter” is the future of news publishing.
    I think that only a well designed newspaper WebApp for iPad and Amazon Fire that is controlled 100% by the publisher would allow this “reverse meter”.
    The key to success of such a solution is an ecosystem with “newspaper coins” to trade both ways credits for UGC, ecommerce and value added services.
    My company is about to launch soon a WebApp with DRM for iPad and Amazon Fire providing rich experience and “Coins” to the American market.

  • We’ve recently adopted a similar approach, by accident, and it’s working very well.

    We are a membership site. A few months ago, we started to do surveys. We offered members a $20 credit for answering the survey. The responses were great and led to really valuable new reports. The survey takers were happy to get credits that essentially paid for overall access for answering a short survey one time.

  • Excellent. Thanks for sharing your thoughts around this reverse meter user reward system. Untargeted traffic has a prize. Jeff what would be the cost per valuable user if you are tracking all their value cration activities on the site in a database to determine their credit balance?
    Thank you.

  • Miranda N.

    I think engagement should trump geography in any shape or form. How does one define local reader anyway? Does that include people who once lived in a community but have moved away, but still want to stay in touch? I think it is very possible that “remote” readers can be very engaged in a more local story and then that should be monetized through national advertising, for example. Reading the news isn’t only defined by geographic borders anymore, but also by interest areas, people who will read any well-written story about social media, for example, such as the good reporting on by the Kansas newspaper on the “twitter war” involving Governor Brownback. Or if I want to read multiple reviews of a movie or a TV show, or an interview with a famous figure running in a local paper. Also, I don’t think it is only abundance that plays a role in the fact the students didn’t pay for the NYT. They are probably still eading the Times regularly because they are engaged enough to know how to get around the paywall very easily.

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  • Tom

    Newspapers and other web content providers continue to look in the wrong place for revenue.

    It’s not the users that should be the primary source of revenue. It has to become the advertisers.

    In their glory days, newspapers were not rolling in the dough because people were paying 10 cents or 25 cents for newspapers. That was just covering the delivery drivers and paper boys.

    Newspapers made fortunes with classified ads and full-color inserts and page after full-page ads for movies and plays and department stores and car dealers.

    Content providers MUST figure out how to do the same thing (albeit in a different fashion) on the internet.

    Most of us already pay an arm and a leg for internet access.

    I pay more than $100 a month to Comcast and a big chunk of that is for web access. Now every website I access wants to nickel and dime me for more? Sorry. Not gonna happen.

    Figure out a way to make ads work for advertisers. That’s where the money is going to be. A business model designed to survive/thrive on the backs of users is a business model doomed to fail.

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  • Scott

    Love this idea. Think colleges and universities could apply it to tuition?

    When a student buys a $50 sweatshirt, the school knocks off X% from the bill for all the free advertising. And every mention of the school on Facebook, Twitter, etc. would provide a tuition break.

  • I have never hit the paywall. I just don’t read the Times that much, because I read a combination of many different sites, the way we now buy music as singles and not albums. That being said, I paid the NYT for six months because I don’t want it to go away. And yes, I’d be willing to donate some sweat equity.

  • Emilio Deheza

    I love it! It would make an excellent case for Google sharing some dollars with the user! Search/searcher friendly!

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  • Ted


    This type of approach has been tried many times in social gaming. You can either pay to gain access to the content, or you can interact with the game by performing certain tasks that provide the game with content, players, backstory, etc… and the game designers will give you access to that content.

    By the way this idea you had is not new, but something that was considered at one website I ran a decade ago if we needed to put up a paywall and if ads were not enough to break even. The site was a community based website dedicated to a given fan base and we were having challanges covering the costs of the site.

    I believe the best approch on this is to build out your site with the all the features you want people to perform. You will then have three buckets of features. Free, Reverse-Paywall, and Paywall. Some of the things behind the paywall / reverse-paywall should be status based. For example in a news website they should be things like getting your name on the article (either as a contributer, editor, photographer, etc.. or as a funder, patron, follower, etc..) My point is that even though both the patron (person paid to fund the reporting) and the editor (person who edited and coordinated the reporting) should both have the same social reward; their name attributed to the story.

    Also with these three buckets you could probably put together a nice business model where each bucket would support each other.

    I would love to see more dialogue about this. Even participate.

    Ted Tschopp

  • So finally it is happening, the only next step after “FREE” is to pay/reward readers to use your product.

    Reverse Meters do not pay the light bills, the reporters salary, or commission to sales reps.

    What I am hearing is that these newspaper websites are so uninteresting, so unmotivating to the users, so difficult to navigate to what you want and need to read, that instead of correcting those things on the website, you want to invent a new Carrot to get readers to interact with stories or advertising.

    I use Amazon.com for about 99% of my online purchases, even if I could get the product somewhere else cheaper. They have figured out that my time is more valuable, that I am willing to pay a one time yearly fee for free shipping, that I have the history of all my purchases in one place, that I am shown items that would be of interest to me or ones that others have bought that are similar. My experience is always 100% efficient and rewarding.

    How many online newspaper stories show things like “other readers of this story also read….”, or instead of showing 500 “comments” to a story and expect me to wade through them (which will never happen) I can choose to read comments from people with similar tastes and values like mine (which can all be done upon registration). Imagine facing 500 comments on a story and being able to sort them by Male/Female, age group, political bend, education, etc.

    And as for advertising, start selling what advertisers want to buy. And if your advertising department does not know what their main core of advertisers want to buy, then they should all be fired.

    You want more users? Promote your brand in every way possible and make users experience at your newspaper site a positive, valuable, organized and efficient process.

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  • isism

    Paying back readers sounds intriguing at first, however it has its own ethical dilemmas. Advertisers don’t want people to click on their ads because they’re paid to do so. They want people who have a genuine interest in the product/service to follow the ad links. I would be pissed of if I learned that the news site was paying its visitors to click on my ad and thus creating an unfair cost to me…

    As a user I fully agree with Tom, I already pay for internet adding payments for almost each site I visit is not going to fly with me.

  • Melody Joy Kramer

    I’m spending time at Harvard next year contemplating the same thing for public media membership: https://medium.com/@mkramer/my-nieman-application-essay-59663a303d5b

  • MCharles

    I don’t hit the NYT wall because I value my 20 articles so highly that I’ll often not click on a story that I find interesting, worried that I won’t be able to read a hypothetical story down the road that I would find even more interesting. End result is I only click on +/-10 stories instead of the 20-30 I read before the wall went up. I lose out, the NYT loses out.

  • Interesting idea. I have just finished the book ‘Who owns the Future’ by Jaron Lanier. He is proposing such a model for the whole Online economy. Everyone who creates or adds value should be rewarded.

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