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Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.


People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.


  1. Keith says:

    What works for me, for at least some of the newspapers, is that I have a browser installed that I do not use normally, but only when I hit the free article limit barrier. I right click on the link that led me to the article that I cannot read, choose the “copy link” choice, and paste the link into that other browser.

    If that other browser gets the free article limit message, I clear all that browser’s cookies and other saved data, close the browser, open it again, and paste in the link again.

    This does not work for every site that imposes these kind of viewing limits. I guess those sites use some method of tracking that clearing browser data does not erase.

    I imagine you are savvy enough that you would have thought of this approach on your own, so perhaps you do not want to circumvent the sites’ restrictions, if that is the way they want to control access to their content. I’m writing on the slim chance that this approach just did not occur to you.

    1. I know most of the tricks of this sort, and occasionally use them, though I feel a little guilty about it. They’re trying to monetize their content, which is their right and responsibility. They’re just doing it all wrong, and it’s killing them.

      In writing this article I’m taking a broader view: That news organizations are leaving money on the table, while at the same time forcing readers to pay for great bleeding palletloads of material they don’t want. I would prefer that newspapers not go away. I’m sharp enough to recognized biased articles and verify from other sources. I simply want to choose what to read and pay only for those items. Even if they ask a buck per article, that might be fifteen dollars a month–and Carol and I can spend that much on one trip through McDonald’s.

      If newspapers lose money in this day and age, it’s through corner-office ego and concomitant willful stupidity. There are other business models for periodical literature that they seem…peculiarly…unwilling to try. If they sell by the piece, they lose their myth and mystique. It’s pretty much that simple.

  2. Roy Harvey says:

    I too have a 2nd browser for this. My main is Firefox, with ads blocked. My fall back is Chrome with no ad blocker but I use a shortcut that opens Chrome in what they call Incognito mode where nothing from the session is saved.

    Works for me.

  3. Alex says:

    For the sites that offer a number of free articles, you can right click and “open in incognito window” when your free aticle limit runs out. Doesn’t work for every site but does for many.

    As for your “gumball machine” idea: many people have had a similar idea. I do think your suggestion of 50c per article is far too much. Two or three articles and you’ve spent more than most newspapers. I don’t think most people would be willing to spend that much.

    I also don’t think the newspapers would support that because it would destroy their brands and ultimately lead to the demise of their business. Think about it – why would any journalist sell their articles to newspapers if they could sell them directly to the “gumball machine”? This would cut out the middle man and allow the journalist to keep more of the profit.

    1. I’m still thinking about whether a gumball machine would destroy newspaper brands, unless you’re talking about newspaper myth. (Much of which dates back to Clark Kent, Lois, and Perry White.)

      The gumball machine is really a back-end mechanism for collecting money. It isn’t a separately branded storefront. You’d still go to the WaPo site, and would not be redirected to a gumball machine site. So I’m leaning toward thinking that the brand itself wouldn’t suffer much. What would suffer is the notion of a newspaper as a huge, juggernaut-ish creature that defends truth, justice, and the American Way.

      Under the gumball machine business model, a news organization sells individual articles. Full stop. Readers might never see a front page, and might not ever read the star columnists. Maybe that would hurt the brand. I don’t know. I think political bias hurts it more, and has been hurting it for a lot of years. My primary point is that news orgs could be making money by selling pieces and not bundles of 85% useless blather.

  4. TRX says:

    Ah, but when you’re buying your gumball from the newspaper, you’re getting their “curation”; their reputation for fairness, completeness, and truth bolstering that of the author, editing, proofreading, fact-checking, and liability for damages or slander, and… wait, why are you laughing?

    1. Because I worked in publishing (albeit not news publishing) for a good many years. I knew a lot of people, and heard how things really work. It’s painful laughter, but you nailed it. Let’s call it graveyard humor, but…it’s still humor.

  5. Orvan Taurus says:

    “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and WaPo is there the turn out the lights.

    And I use Vivaldi (on the desktop – nothing mobile.. YET) and when I hit that limit, it’s not hard to nuke the cookies from the limiting site – and ONLY that site. RESET!

    A few years ago the local paper tried to limit web-availability and demand subscription… which would have been not too bad if it hadn’t been MORE than the paper version cost. But there was a trivial way to defeat it: Turn CSS off. That system didn’t last very long.

    1. TRX says:

      In my experience, very few people wanted a whole newspaper anyway. They just wanted the TV listings, the classifieds, and occasionally a few headlines; the rest was ignored or unwanted.

      Our multi-mega-merged one-paper-for-the-whole-state was thicker than my arm for dailies, and Sundays larger than that. Available only by full-month subscription, at a cost that made it more than some basic utilities. Six a week went into the trash with the wrapper still on; Sundays, my wife carefully extracted the TV listings and then dropped the rest into the trash. After I finally weaned her from the TV, she canceled the paper.

      1. We took the WSJ for a number of years (most of the time we were in Colorado, in fact) and I read lots more of it than I generally read of ordinary urban newsrags. At some point I had to ask if the info was worth $400 a year, or if it was just expensive entertainment. The truth lay somewhere in the middle, but once we bought down here in PNX, I quickly found better uses for all those dollars.

        The WSJ made excellent packing material, BTW.

  6. Lee Hart says:

    It reminds me of what Ted Nelson and Roger Gregory were trying to do with the Xanadu project in Ann Arbor back in the 1980’s. The idea wasn’t for 50 cents per “gumball”, but more like micropayments of fractions of a cent.

    Another idea I’ve seen kicked around is to charge per minute or per megabyte, like no-contract cellphones. If you only skim the headlines and read a few articles, the cost is thus low.

    1. TRX says:

      I first heard about the “micropayments” thing back in 1995-ish. There were a dozen companies fighting for a piece of the action. And then PayPal and a few competitors hit the market, and the micropayments idea sank without a trace. And shortly after that, Paypal had absorbed all its competition, and the situation still seems to be stable…

      Nowadays when I’m concerned with tracking and security issues, my reaction to any sort of micropayment system is “not no, but hell no.” Inherent in the design is tracking; it has to know who you are and what you’re clicking on in order to work. And *that* is the kind of “marketable information” I’m not interested in sharing. And, of course, they’re going to want some kind of billing system, which would likely require a credit card, just to tie even more data into the bundle.

      Yes, I know most people have no problem with having every click, word, or motion monitored, recorded, and marketed, via their web browser, ISP, smartphone, or “home appliance”, but you’re still going to have to compete with foreign MSM – look for news, and Russia Today, BBC, and other English-language news in China, Canada, France… and some, like Russia Today are state-supported propaganda outfits, so they’re funded by other peoples’ tax dollars.

      So, along with your credit and tracking system, you’d have to find some way around that…

      …and that leads us to Google, Bing, Yahoo, and the other search engines, which have contented themselves as being merely aggregators. If Google (or Amazon, for that matter) were to decide there were any profit in news, it would be trivially simple for them to establish themselves in that market. They’re *already* where people go to look for news; all they’d be out is some trivial amount for content, unless they adopted the Huffington Post model and got their content for free…

  7. Bob says:

    A payment system like your suggestion is needed for selling ebooks. I am a heavy book reader and only buy ebooks nowadays. I have noticed that almost all of my purchases are through Amazon. While they have so far been relatively benign, I do not want to leave access to books to a Leftist behemoth.

    Amazon is already flexing their monopoly muscle. A lot of my reading is on Kindle Unlimited (KU) and AFAIK Amazon requires you to agree to sell your book exclusively with them to allow your book on KU. That is a deliberate attempt to eliminate competition as any monopolist will do.

    Since a large fraction of ebooks, and newspaper articles for that matter, are read on cellphones, the obvious way to implement your idea is with an app. But there you run afoul of another Left wing near-monopoly, Apple Computer, with their unconscionable 30% Apple tax on all purchases on their phones.

    So far Google, another Left wing near-monopoly, has not been able to implement a tax on sales on Android so that would be a place to start.

    I know there is Smashwords but I do not know much about them. I noticed you are not on there. What are your reasons for not listing there? I am actively looking for Amazon alternatives.

  8. Greg says:

    Online only WSJ subs can be had for $5/mo. on eBay. A reasonable price point for me.

    I’d like to see something a bit like streaming music services where $10/mo. would provide complete access to archives (> 30 days) and a useful number of current articles per month across all participating newspapers/magazines.

    Until then, it’s easy enough to just go away or bypass the limits.

    1. Heh. Had never heard of buying a sub on eBay. We paid ~$400/year for the print edition. I don’t want paper dropped in my driveway, at least until a few months before we move, which I hope like hell we never do again. I’ll look into this. I’d pay $60 a year for online, no problem.

  9. wrm says:

    You have it right, but yea, none so blind and all.

    And IMO Baen has the eBook thing 100% down pat.

  10. james fuerstenberg says:

    I pretty much avoid all newspapers for the same reason as you do. Very little worthwhile and heavily left leaning. If the newspapers die, I would not feel the loss.

    That being said, the Gumball Machine is a very good idea

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