Sustainable journalism beyond the limits of our understanding

“When will micropayment technologies be good enough to buy articles?”

This was a question posed at a journalism event recently.

I was really surprised to hear it.

I wasn’t sure whether to list the many technologies and examples of places where it has been tried and failed over the last 15+ years at news orgs large and small or to respond to the business model implied by the question.

It’s easy to understand why people still believe sustainable journalism can be achieved through traditional commercial trade like this – reader gives publisher money, publisher gives reader articles. It sounds very sensible because it used to work just fine this way.

New thinking will eventually clear out the old thinking, but in many cases we also need to unlearn what we think we understand.

There’s a great example of this by SmarterEveryDay who demonstrated a brilliant experiment in cognitive dissonance. He unlearned how to ride a bike (h/t @albertwenger).

It turns out that the reason riding a bike feels easy once we’ve learned is because our brains ruthlessly protect our understanding of how to do it. We tend to lock down hard-earned knowledge and keep it that way, though children’s brains are very willing to adjust to changes in conditions.

Paywalls, micropayments, paid news apps, etc. are all industrial production-style business models translated for the Internet. They make sense given what we thought we knew, and, as a result, a lot of people are certain they will work.

Just like TV is much more than radio with pictures and how a web site is much more than a magazine on a computer, the business models enabling sustainable journalism can’t be translated from the technological predecessor.

A generation of entrepreneurs is going to wipe away those ideas and reinvent network-native business models for sustainable journalism that have a lot less friction and benefit many more constituents.

While some of those models are already proven and many more are still playing out I do think there is a bigger challenge for future visionaries to take on:

What models for sustainable journalism operate beyond the limits of the medium through which the journalism materializes?

It’s probably the wrong question, come to think of it. I’ve got my own biases that need to be recalibrated, too.

Regardless, a change in thinking is required in the hivemind that believes the answer is a digital version of past successes, and I suspect it’s going to be much harder than learning how to ride a backwards bike.