A friend sent me a link to the transcript of a talk that author Peter Wayner gave at Google last year.
It's basically about how Google could provide an incentive for newspapers and bloggers to do more original reporting rather than just rehashing previously published reports. (Yes, I know that's what I'm doing here-- but I've done a lot of genuine on-site reporting here lately, from Hot Chips, Zonbu headquarters, and Siggraph-- so I can see both sides of the issue.)
Wayner presents some interesting figures. He says The New York Times Web site received about 18.6 million unique visitors in January 2006, vs. the 1.1 million daily circulation of its printed edition and the 1.7 million copes printed on Sunday. In 2004, the Times earned $900 of revenue from each print subscriber, but only $11 from Web visitors. (If you've seen more recent statistics, please leave a comment! Thanks.)
He also points out that the Times loses visitors to other sites that reprint its articles. I'm gaining experience with this myself; there are several Web sites that copy my blog posts in their entirety and surround them with their own ads, trying to attract visitors from search engines. These sites take revenue away from CNET and me. It's a pretty minor issue for me, but it must be a huge problem for CNET, the Times and other such sites.
As Wayner says, Google has an interesting opportunity to help deal with these problems. Google provides most of the search hits that take people to these pirate sites, and it also places most of the ads that surround the pirated content. He goes on to suggest various ways that Google could favor the original creators and disadvantage the pirates.
It seems to me that if you add the idea that Google could positively know what pages contain new content, it could identify the pirate sites and not merely penalize them in its rankings but simply cut them off. Google could get that knowledge by having an established business relationship with the content providers.
Wayner also mentions the idea of micropayments-- payments too small to justify an ordinary credit-card transaction, such as for reading a single article or downloading a short video without ads. This is a concept I think is long overdue, and it provides the basis for a business relationship.
And this mention ties in with another story I saw today-- coincidentally, on The New York Times. The story by Dan Mitchell, titled "In Online World, Pocket Change Is Not Easily Spent," points out that Google already runs a kind of micropayment service: Google's AdSense. AdSense isn't aimed at the general public, but the underlying technology could certainly be adapted for wider use.
(I must say that I think Mitchell tried too hard to show that micropayment systems are already available. To my way of thinking, Apple's iTunes payment system is not a micropayment system because transactions are not necessarily aggregated. If you buy a single song on iTunes, Apple generates a credit card transaction. At the 99-cent level, that's barely worth doing. At the 5-cent level, it would be impractical.)
Anyway, when I put all this together, what I'd like to see is a system that allows users to choose between ad-supported or micropayment-funded views of original published material...and allows publishers to decide what they think their material is worth. It should recognize pirated content and decline to index it, place ads, or process micropayments for it; and it should provide a per-week or per-month flat rate for unlimited use of participating sites.
Google could make that system work. I'd pay for ad-free access to commercial websites, and I suspect a lot of other people would too.