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What's It Worth to You?

Advertisers might pay for the journalism—if consumers are willing to open up.

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We fritter away our privacy, so why not sell it off for money? Each of us is a file of personal data—our age, our sex, our address, the places we go, the things we buy. Imagine bundling thousands of these files. Advertisers could be so excited to get their hands on all that information they'd go back to paying for our journalism.

Bill Densmore has been thinking about this for 14 years. A career journalist who's shifted to journalism research, Densmore is a fellow at the futurist Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Each of us has equity in the lives we live, he believes, and it's time to cash in. His solution is the "information valet project," a reordered media universe in which dozens of companies compete for the business of brokering our lives for the online news and commentary we covet.

Densmore may be a visionary, but there are others, and he pointed to Doc Searls, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Densmore said Searls believes "that consumer information should belong to consumers—he'd say users." It doesn't. "If you think about it, a consumer by himself has no clout to manage his persona," Densmore went on. But in the hands of the Chicago Tribune or WBEZ—to name two potential information valets that many of us subscribe to in the here and now—that consumer's "persona" could be worth a nice chunk of change.

"Right now," said Densmore, "There are many people tracking you and tracking me and we don't know what they're tracking us for because of the perniciousness of interest-based advertising dropping cookies on our machines. The InfoValet says, 'Nothing needs to be surreptitious. Let's be upfront about it. If you want high-value information on the Web, be an open book about your demographics. As a result, you'll get all kinds of commercial offers.'

"At the other end of the spectrum I may say, 'I won't go with the Chicago Tribune because its terms require giving up too much information. I'll go to a Swiss bank InfoValet—they don't share anything. But that will mean nobody has the means to monetize me, so I'll have to pay more for information."

This is little more than an idea, but it's sturdy enough to have justified a three-day conference last December at the Reynolds Institute that brought together academics, writers, publishers, and entrepreneurs. And on April 27 it will be the subject of a daylong symposium at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., at which Densmore intends to introduce the first few pieces of a superstructure.

His idea's underlying premise is simple, if nothing else about it is, and it's pretty hard to refute. "The news can't be free because you and I as journalists need to eat," Densmore said. "I'm an unreconstructed believer in the fact people ought to pay for information."

But how? It's clear to him that the big media companies who are giving away their content online while slowly dying are powerless to unilaterally change—first to charge, first to die. Yet if media moguls got together and collectively set a price structure they'd wind up in court facing antitrust charges. Someone else has to fill the pool so everyone can jump in at once.

The pool is my metaphor. Densmore has others and needs them all. "The real challenge," he said, "is in trying to describe an elephant in the room that nobody's seen yet." When I asked him to tell me more about his elephant, he found it easier to say what it isn't. "For example, it's not PayPal. The problem with PayPal is that everybody has to have an account with PayPal. We don't want any one party to own the universe. With the information valet there should be n number of information valet providers—banks, NPR affiliates, affinity groups, wireless carriers—affiliated only in the loosest way that's necessary to allow the authentication of users across the network."

The elephant has a name if not a body: it's the Journalism Trust Association, which Densmore told me was being formally established this week in Washington. He hopes to introduce a blue-ribbon panel of advisers on April 27. Densmore's compared the JTA to the Associated Press, which he used to work for here in Chicago long ago; the AP is a nonprofit alliance of newspapers that serves them all. He's also compared it to the New York Stock Exchange. A radio interviewer in Saint Louis said it sounded to him like a PPO. Densmore thought that was a pretty good comparison too.

He envisions it working something like this: You choose an InfoValet. It asks you what level of personal information you want to share with the Web sites you visit. At the low end that could basically be your name, rank, and serial number, and at the high end a laundry list of your needs and pleasures. Your InfoValet finds out what sites you want premium—i.e., nonfree—content from, and then it names a price. Its profit will come from charging you a little more than those sites charge it, and what they charge will hinge on the desirability of your "persona" to their advertisers. Densmore can imagine someone wealthy, acquisitive, and candid who's so desirable he gets to travel the Web for pretty much nothing.

Other, less desirable people will either pay top dollar to visit premium sites or they'll do without. For them Densmore speaks of "library paths" to the full Net—a phrase that conjures up pictures of public reading rooms where the world's great newspapers are laid out in bins. "What's cool about a system where everybody is identified in some fashion," he said, "is you can do all sorts of slicing and dicing of access privileges and pricing. I certainly can see ways in which that could be not inclusive, but I also can see ways in which it could be dramatically inclusive."

What about cheats? I wondered—the ones who game the system, gilding their personas to make themselves irresistible to advertisers? "Advertising has always been a matter of making an educated guess—about putting yourself in the marketplace where the most likely buyers are," he told me. "But since we can't read minds yet, it's an imperfect art. InfoValet makes it less imperfect. Now an auto company advertising in print, broadcast, or online knows only to put their ad where, in the aggregate, potential customers might be swimming. At least now they can focus on the fish who self-identified their interest. If even half of those fish are lying, the efficiency of the buy... is still likely to be an order of magnitude more efficient than just dropping a lot of display ads into the sea."

Besides, he went on, the gamers would leave a record as deadbeats, and in time their InfoValets would catch on.

Densmore's vision involves trading privacy for profit, and that's one reason the Reynolds Journalism Institute has commissioned a national study on privacy—it's being conducted by Professor Lee Wilkins, an ethicist on the faculty of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. Densmore had a lot of input in framing Wilkins's questionnaire because he needs to know this: What will consumers trade privacy for, in terms of goods or services? Wilkins is expected to present an answer on April 27.

Both Wilkins and Densmore pointed out to me that the idea of trading away privacy is hardly new. Anyone who swipes a store card at the supermarket is giving that store a record of his or her consumption habits in order to save a few bucks on specials. The big danger, Wilkins believes, is data aggregation—and on this, she says, journalists are ahead of the public and the young are ahead of the old. Your hospital has your medical records and your Jewel has your consumption records—but what if your medical insurer got ahold of both, and decided that because of your high-fat diet it's going to stop paying for your statins?

Densmore told me that if Wilkins's survey "showed people didn't care about their privacy, it would show content providers they could probably offer their services for free because they'll be paid a lot by advertisers." But neither Densmore nor Wilkins seems to expect the survey will show this, or to wish it would.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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