Far from being a failed experiment, Esther Kezia Thorpe argues that we need to think bigger when it comes to micropayments, for What’s New in Publishing.

With the rise of subscriptions and paywalls comes the realisation that there’s a large chunk of a publisher’s audience that they may never be able to effectively monetise. Only an estimated 5% of a publisher’s digital readership will convert to pay for a full subscription, according to Digiday.

But what’s the alternative? Micropayments are one of the alternative revenue streams touted by hopeful tech start-ups and half-heartedly trialled by some organisations. But you’d be hard pushed to think of a publisher in the Western hemisphere who has properly explored micropayments, for better or for worse.

But perhaps our hope that people will pay a pittance for our work is setting the bar too low. Maybe we’ve been thinking about micropayments all wrong.

Why we need to look beyond subscriptions

Let’s start with why we need an alternative. The basic issue with paywalls is that if every publisher put up a hard paywall overnight, people simply wouldn’t be able to afford to take out subscriptions to all of them. Many readers of this article will read widely around other outlets – add up the cost of a $10 a month subscription to each publisher you’ve read today, and the figures will most likely soon stack up to become unaffordable.

This is a line of reasoning that many top media people have already picked up on. Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti said earlier this year that they wouldn’t consider a paywall as they wanted to focus on educating and informing the broader public. “If every news organization puts the majority of their content behind paywalls, it’s hard to have an informed electorate,” he argued.

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