Africa 2.0

What Journalism Can Learn from Zimbabwe

There are a million and one reasons why micro-payments won’t save journalism, but ultimately the most obvious is that we are living in a time where there’s an over-abundance of news media. Think about it, where did you watch the Obama Inauguration? Did you watch it on CNN, BBC, SkyNews, Al-Jazeera, Fox News, MSNBC or the web? Did you not watch it at all only to read about it on blogs and websites the next day? Did you open your Facebook account and find your friends talking about what they did the previous night to watch it? Did you watch your local affiliates over either that night or the handful of days after? Did you turn on the radio to hear your morning DJs talking about it? Did you glance past the Newspaper covers when you went to the supermarket? Did you get a phone call from your friends or family to tell you how elated (or depressed) they were about the next four years?

Whether you care about American Politics, Obama or elections or not…even if you were deliberately trying to shut it all out…I’m almost certain some iota of the news found you. There are more outlets for news now than ever before in history. And for the average person this is good enough. This is what big journalism is fighting against. They haven’t lost their authority. People just have more authorities with more granular subjects to choose from. The web up is made up seemingly infinite granular coverage of everything. Where there’s someone interested in something, there’s probably a blog discussing that subject in depth.

So the idea that anyone would ever pay for news is mostly absurd because it would be like paying a la carte when the buffet is complimentary. No one is arguing that paying a la carte won’t get you better meal, the custom meal will almost certainly be better, but the average person at that same cafe isn’t going to pay for a bacon and egg sandwich when they can just walk over to the buffet table grab two pieces of toast, one egg, some bacon and orange juice and eat a meal just as filling at no cost. There is simply no added value, at least not enough for the average person.

In the article “The Micropayments Argument: Do We Want to turn the Web into Zimbabwe?“, writer Charles Arthur rakes Jakob Nielsen and others who share his philosophy like Walter Isaacson over the coals for suggesting that the news industry can be saved by micro-payments.

Charles Arthur’s logic is simple:

  • News is only as valuable as it is ‘new’ and ‘exclusive’. The window of opportunity for charging for it is incredibly small, because it will eventually spread out to other blogs or news outlets and become devalued as there are now other places to get it for free.
  • People don’t want their money tied up in proprietary system of currency like Beenz and Flooz
  • If Apple and Microsoft and Firefox and Internet Explorer can’t agree on web standards, how would one financial system work across multiple sites?
  • Authentication across multiple sites would be maddeningly annoying.
  • Even if some universal system was adopted to work across multiple sites, it would have to be very passive (so as not to be maddeningly annoying). Thus, if hackers began exploiting the system, it be hard to find out and even harder to do something about it. Think about inbox spam now and how much trouble it causes for some. Now think about giving those people direct access to your banking information. This destroys trust. With no trust, there’s no adoption.
  • There would be a race to the bottom caused by competitors dropping prices to lure away your readers, and thus news sites would end up virtually giving away their content anyways. In this way any charging for news would be akin to the current situation in Zimbabwe. Only in this case rapidly falling prices would demand smaller and smaller denominations until they hit the dreaded $0.00

The only way to enforce this is if everyone on the web adopted it, in which case it would make more sense to charge a universal content tax rather than micro-payments for just news. That isn’t going to happen either, at least not unless it’s mandated by governments. But if that happens, of course, some countries won’t comply and there will still be holes in the system, like using a proxy to feign a Chinese or African IP addres which would allow the people who did so to surf the web for free.

Charles goes on to say…

So there you have it on micropayments: they’d be impossible to standardise, hackers would feast on them, and they would only deter people from sites that used them to charge for content with a short half-life.

On that basis, it seems like the most realistic way we’re ever going to see micropayments in real life is in that real-world currency, the Zimbabwean dollar. Each one of which was worth, earlier this month, approximately one three-hundredth of a trillionth of a US dollar. On that basis, paying a Zimbabe dollar per page visited, you’d need to travel about 3,000 times around the entire web before you’d spent the equivalent of a US dollar. Seems like a good deal. And it does have the benefit that it’s backed by a sovereign government – though not, let’s admit, one you’d really want to deal with any longer than absolutely necessary.

Perhaps we can now forget the whole micropayments meme. Please.

This is article is syndicated from facilitates, mentors and incubates entrepreneurs in software in East Africa and Uganda. Their goal is to offer a physical space with a solid internet connection, servers, software and computers that will allow students and recent graduates a place to develop their ideas in a constructive environment with industry professionals outside of school. For more great articles from Appfrica please visit

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