We need to save online journalism from ad-blocking – and here's how

The method for funding online journalism in a world of ad-blockers already exists – it's just that nobody uses it yet

A total of 22% of British adults now use ad-blockers on their web browsers - up from 18% last October, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. Increasingly, ad-blockers aren't just used with desktop browsers, but mobile ones too. And journalists are rightly worried.

Since the turn of the millennium, journalism has been in a state of what feels like perpetual crisis, as every droplet of industry news is debated in panic-stricken terms. But does ad-blocking really spell disaster for paid-for journalism?

Broken news

Historically, journalism has had two major sources of income: advertisers and readers. But now publishing is being squeezed from both ends. Thanks to the internet, and the explosion in ‘content’ (that’s what we call it now), people are very reticent to pay to read the news, as they would for a print newspaper. And now, thanks to ad-blockers, fewer people are looking at the adverts too.

So what to do? How can a business model be found that will make journalism pay? Is there anything that can save this noble trade?

Bizarrely, the solution to this problem has already been invented. Six years ago. By one of the last people you’d expect to have an interest in paying people for their work.

The six-year-old solution

Flattr was co-founded in 2010 by Peter Sunde, who is best known as one of the co-founders and former spokespeople for The Pirate Bay. Given that his website is responsible for distributing huge swathes of pirated content, you can’t help but wonder if Flattr was his attempt at atonement.

Flattr is a “microdonation” platform. The idea is that you sign up and allocate a fixed amount of cash to pay in every month – £10, say – and if you’re reading an online article that you like, you click the “Flattr” button nestled among the existing social media sharing links. At the end of the month, your £10 is then divided between the publishers of the articles you’ve chosen to flattr. So if you flattr two articles, they earn £5 each. If you flattr ten, each publisher gets a pound. And so on.

The genius is that it solves the biggest problem with any micropayment system: friction.

Getting people to pay for digital content is possible, as is demonstrated by the wild success of app stores on mobile phones. The trick is to make it easy. Buying an app is easy, because there’s a payment button that's linked directly to our credit cards, so we can do it in one tap. As yet, there's no equivalently easy process for journalism. And this is where Flattr comes in.

If the user is logged into Flattr, payment is completely frictionless. There’s no faffing about with login details – just one click and it’s done. Crucially, it can also act as a common platform between content providers: a user doesn’t need a Guardian account, a BuzzFeed account and an Alphr account to pay for articles; nor do they have to decide where to put their cash specifically, as their clicks will do it for them.

The fact that Flattr is a voluntary system is also key to its genius. Online content is so commoditised it's unlikely that people will pay up front for news coverage they could find elsewhere, but by using a “tip-jar” system, it enables consumers to reward what they've found useful. This is already common in other sectors. Many of the bands on Bandcamp, for example, let users download their music on a (Radiohead-style) “pay what you like” model.

Netflix for journalism

So the Flattr model would fairly reward journalists – and users know they’ll never accidentally pay more than a fixed amount. Brilliant, right?

The business model has also been proven to work with the likes of Netflix and Spotify. On Netflix, you pay a fixed fee every month and your £6.99 is divided between the film studios whose movies you’ve watched. Sure, downloading a film from The Pirate Bay would be cheaper, but Netflix has made it so easy (“frictionless”) to watch thousands of films at the touch of a button, paying up front is simply the laziest thing to do - so we’re willing to do it.

Unfortunately, there's a flaw in this brilliant plan. The problem is that Flattr simply hasn’t taken off, despite having six years to grow, and the reason you’ve never heard of it is because it appears to have, at best, a couple of hundred thousand users. In 2013 CEO Linus Olsson wouldn’t confirm the number, and in 2011, Sunde claimed the service had 100,000 users. Google Trends suggests people are losing interest in the platform.

Flattr has failed to revolutionise journalism because it has experienced the same problem as many other platforms: the chicken and egg dilemma. Content providers aren’t embedding Flattr links alongside Facebook and Twitter, because there aren't enough users to justify it, and no consumers are signing up, because there aren’t enough websites that support it.

Continues on page 2: Get Google to buy Flattr – or rip it off completely

Read more about: