A very wise (and, strangely, important) person in the news industry said to me the other day: "Do you know ANYONE who has ever clicked on an online ad?"
I had to confess I knew many who clicked on those little Google thingies, but not many who clicked on display ads. And even fewer who would admit to it.
This led us to consider how news organizations might make more (some) money in the future, given that untold riches are not exactly flowing yet from online display advertising.
So imagine if all the (supposedly) reputable news organizations got together one night, in a dark room owned by Rupert Murdoch and decided that they would all start charging for their online content. Not just one or two of them. All of them.
No more linking by the Drudge Report without a fee. No more getting up in the morning to read the election latest online before you put on your lucky underwear, without, at the very least, a subscription.
Of course it's true that, in times gone by, these same news organizations had little clue how the Web would develop. They believed in unlimited free sampling of their product online, in the interesting belief this wouldn't devalue the one thing they had to offer.
Some organizations did try charging (a few, like The Wall Street Journal, still do) and then backed away like Alaskan moose when faced with an armed news crew.
But it used to be free to park on many Main Streets in America. Then they put in parking meters and, though we might show McCainish grouchiness on occasion, we pay. Could it still be the same with online news?
Where, in fact, does the thing we call "news" come from anyway? Don't we imagine that somewhere out there are paid journalists of some repute, battling past press releases, spin surgeons, and proprietorial prejudice in order to sniff out something akin to truths and bring them to their readers?
If, at noon tomorrow, all news organizations announced they would immediately start charging for their hard-earned and, presumably, valuable online product (I'm imagining Rupert Murdoch and The New York Times' Arthur Sulzberger making a joint statement, their arms linked in solidarity, each reading every second word of their pronouncement), would people refuse to pay?
Yes, there would still be competition from new free sites, financed solely by advertising. But these would have to be new brands. Would people trust them? Remember, I am talking about every single news organization coming together and sticking to a joint principle. (Yes, I know, I know. Please dream with me, won't you?)
Given that times are now a-changing and we are all a-working together to blunt the parts of capitalism that the finest algorithms failed to anticipate, might some readers hope that by paying for news they might just get a product of slightly better quality?
What if the proprietors suddenly grasped the times they were living in, clutched the concept of truth like a man rolling off a cliff grabs at a dried-up branch, and shared a little of their business model with their readers?
What if they then promised their readers that for, say, a $25 subscription (yes, not much more than 6 coffees or a pack of 24 condoms) they would guarantee a 25 percent expansion in online news coverage?
Might this also allow the news organizations to reverse their tendency (their need, they might say) to pepper their pages with so much display advertising that their online content sometimes looks like a teenage acne-ridden cheek?
Isn't there just the smallest, tiniest chance that readers might buy into this new commercial relationship? If the financial folks can all get together to save themselves, er, I mean, to readjust their business principles, isn't this a good time for online news organizations to do it too?
That'll be $49.99. Thank you.