After a delayed start, the project is going well. We have fully integrated WM into our publishing system. Each publication is set up with a payment pointer and account so as a reader navigates their news feed, the appropriate pointer is used and publisher account is credited. We have created a WM widget for our main payment bar that reports when WM is active, which publication is getting funded and the aggregate total for the current reading session. We also enhanced the CMS so publication and publisher records can be configured to use WM.
Our project has now essentially two objectives: integrating WM as one of our payment methods into our multi-publication digital publishing system, and to pilot that method with a few selected readers and gauge feedback. The third objective, working with our participating publishers to design a pricing structure that incorporates WM with our other two methods - subscription and per-article payments - has been somewhat thwarted by the inflexibility in setting the WM rate. At the time we submitted the grant, we were not aware of this fact. Hopefully, it can change.
First objective was the more technical and involved component, and is now complete and functional on our UAT environment. It will be put into production after we create the supporting documentation for end users, which is what we currently are working on.
The second objective - piloting the system with some end users - has some interesting and unanticipated factors. Due to the inflexibility of pricing (as far as we can tell) with Coil, users will see an estimated 90% reduction in costs to use our system. More details on this below. I think when we ask them what they think, assuming the on-boarding process is not too strenuous, will be "wow, I love it!" Used to cost me $5/month. Now it's just $0.50." Not sure how to control for this factor when gauging whether the technology is a net benefit for existing readers.
Still, we're excited in seeing how this plays out, and will be reaching out to our readers later in the month, after the documentation is complete.
The technical/backend work is mostly complete - that was our focus for the first half of the project, and is the key activity that has had the most...activity, to date. We found the implementation of necessary technologies - Coil, Uphold, etc - to be straightforward and well documented, and went surprisingly smoothly. The JS libraries seemed well put together and did not conflict with the frameworks that run our system, so we felt comfortable adopting them.
We have not yet publicized the grant or the enhancements to the NewsAtomic system. We want the WM system to be in place before we do that, so there's something to look at. When the pilot begins at the end of this month, we will send out the PR announcing the grant, the new features, and the opportunity to participate.
The big stumbling block for us to put this technology into production is the $0.36 hourly rate. For a local, community focused publication with readership measured in thousands, this rate will not generate the reader revenue necessary to sustain such a publication. Typical subscriptions are $5/month, and typical total monthly usage times are between 1 and 2 hours, thus WM will only produce 10% or so of typical revenue.
The problem here is that we're starting at a different place than perhaps many other content providers implementing WM technology. We aren't trying to monetize what had previously been free content. That's always a heavy lift, and WM is a perfect way to ease that transition. We have spent years educating our market that local journalism isn't free, to overcome the ingrained resistance to paying for news. The mindset is evolving, and we've made the case that our product is worth what we charge, which is considerably more than what WM provides.
The other big stumbling block we're facing is the complexity of on-ramping a reader. It's a multi-step, involved process that, as it stands today, only the most computer-savvy reader will undertake. A significant portion of our readership are elderly, and it can be a real tech support challenge to just get them logged in. It is out of the question that they would install a browser plugin or set up a digital wallet. So that cuts down the pool of potential WM adopters, reducing its viability.
Our company started as a dial-up ISP in the early 90s, and we continue to work in this dynamic space of where high tech meets an unsophisticated public. One thing we learned early on is that if we as a company specify a technology as part of our service, we in effect "are" that tech, in the eyes of our customers. Hence if we say "go get an Uphold account for your digital wallet and add the Coil Chrome extension," we are now on the hook for how that tech works and what it does to an end-user's computer. In other words, they call us when they don't understand it or it stops working. Even for a software company like us that has a tech support infrastructure in place, that's not a small consideration. For a small publisher alone, it's out of the question.
But all is not lost! Where WM can really help is with viral stories. We published a piece in 2019 about a kid physically removed from school because his parents refused to vaccinate him. Well, the anti-vax community got wind of the piece, and we were inundated with traffic - 50 times the norm. We have a hard paywall, so 99% of that traffic didn't convert to anything - they just went away. With WM in place, and with the client tools having widespread adoption, we would have been able to monetize that traffic. But be mindful of the caveat - "widespread adoption". No anti-vaxxer is going to go through the steps to WM enable their computer to read one particular article. Widespread adoption is a critical piece for this to work, as I'm sure the community understands.