No single shift in business models or payment systems is going to fix the economic problems of the press. So let's concentrate on small steps with a chance of making things better rather than worse. One would be a hybrid of the NPR "pledge" model and the old royalty system for airplay of pop music on the radio. The combination could give people a way to support news operations in a nonintrusive, familiar fashion.
In principle, some form of "micropayments"--tiny royalties for each online item - will be part of the eventual solution for financing online news. The problem is that most existing systems are too big a nuisance. In a world where people willingly pay several dollars per day for cable or satellite TV programming, you'd think that a newspaper article would be worth at least a few cents. But in practice, anything that complicates or delays the act of reading a Web page or clicking a link probably sends an online reader someplace else. It's not the five cents that stops you; it's having to decide over and over again to spend the next five cents. It might be the same with TV if you had to authorize a payment each time you switched to The Daily Show.
A sustainable payment system for online news has to make the process as effortless - but still as controllable - as the EZ-pass system for highway tollbooths. Or, for a more modern reference, as the SkypeOut payment system on Skype. With EZ-pass, you decide ahead of time that you're willing to pay for tolls, so you're spared the hassle at the booth. With SkypeOut, you decide ahead of time to spend $25 or $50 on Skype's pennies-per-minute calls to landline phones, and you don't have to worry about the details for each call.
Suppose you decide ahead of time that you'd be willing to spend $100 over the next year for the news that you can get free on the Internet. Why would you make that choice? For the same reason many people now decide to pledge $100 to NPR: they know that they can still listen without paying but recognize that if everyone makes that choice, there will eventually be nothing to hear.
In NPR's case, the money is then doled out to specific shows and producers by the network or individual stations. In the case of an online journalism fund, it could be doled out proportionately to the news sites you actually visit during that year. This is much the way that, during the heyday of AM radio, stations would keep playlists and then pay royalties based on air time. The CEO of an online-collaboration company called iLab Solutions, who proposed this scheme to me (for the record: this tech CEO is my son), elaborated on how it might apply to news sites:
"Although this is something that Google could do (since it already tracks so much of what you do on the Web, and can associate it with your user name), I don't think it would actually require anything like their scale or resources to make happen. I believe that all you would actually need to do is the following:
"* Create a Web interface that allows each user to specify how much money they would like to contribute on a monthly or annual basis, and what kind of sites they would like to support (e.g., only original-reporting news; blogs; news analysis; free Web applications, etc.). Also have an interface to put in credit-card information.
"* Write a Firefox (or other) plug-in that tracks what Web sites you go to and reports them all (or only a subset) back to a central database.
"* Create an application that stores for each user the list of URLs they visited, with number of visits, etc. You'd probably want to do this in such a way that the administrator would not associate a person's name with their browsing history. This application would then calculate on a monthly or annual basis how much money each person wants to give to each site, based on their browsing history. You would compile the desired microdonations and cut a check to every site (or all the ones owed over $50). You could probably also provide some interesting statistics so people can see how much they are giving to whom.
"* The service could either be sponsored by a foundation or corporation, or maybe take 1 percent of donations for operations."
This is not the whole answer to the press's financial implosion, but it applies an established model to an emerging problem, and that's a start.