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News: To feel like paying

August 29, 2010

The media and some academic institutions have made an effort to tackle what they consider the problem of newspapers: A business model that can allow them to continue in the internet age. Seminars and workshops sponsored by philanthropic organizations, universities, NGOs, newspapers and so on, are focusing their time on designing new marketing strategies to find new niches for news outlets.

Megan Garber on her article published on June 1st 2010 in the Nieman Journalism Lab‘s website: “Parsing Panera: Could a name-your-own-price model work for news?” seems very skeptical when it comes to visualizing a model where people pay for the news they have access to according to what they feel like paying.

Following Megan’s argument, a nonprofit restaurant that belongs to the Panera Bread chain’s store, leaves it to customers to decide what they will pay. The question she asks is “Could Panera payment model work for news?”

In her analysis she describes how this model can work in some situations where consumer behavior is monitored as in the case of the restaurant One World Everybody Eats. “In One World’s case, the accountability point is a simple donation box. One that is situated — explicitly, purposely, unavoidably — in public. And that makes a big — and perhaps all the — difference.” She continues … “when the accountability is negotiated in private — when there is only, as in the case of online news, the glare of the computer screen to cast light on our shoulders’ angels and devils — our willingness to drop dollars in the donation box certainly becomes a more open question.”

In Melbourne, Australia there is a restaurant called Lentil as Anything. This year they are celebrating what they consider “10 years of a miracle and a unique dining experience.” Nicolás Mendoza decided to write a paper for one of his classes at Melboune Uni to understand a bit more what he defines as “To feel like paying and the anomaly of happiness.”

In his audience research he interviewed a patron at the restaurant who told him the story of the extra coffee cup:

… somebody had left, and so they walked by with the coffee and said ‘oh would you like it’, and as a matter of fact, I did, but it wasn’t my coffee. So, it was nice to get a free coffee, so I paid a little bit more for that. Like thirteen dollars or something, ummm…coffee and cake, which is nice

As Nicolás states, in a conventional restaurant, the extra coffee cup would have made a round trip to the preparation area where it would have been probably discarded. The reason beyond rather throwing it away than giving it for free, is that in conventional restaurants the waiter, the cook and the patrons have specific and limited roles. However, in Lentil as Anything such roles tend to disappear, opening a space for creativity, autonomy and teamwork.

The architecture of this information society offers us the same possibility. The important issue at stake is that we refuse to acknowledge the structural changes that the new digital era is bringing with it. Major participation throughout the internet is something that we should be proud of and that we should embrace.

Jonathan Zittrain exposed it clearly in his conference in NY in 2008 when his book “The Future of the Internet How to Stop it” was about to be released. He pointed out that the cases of napster and skype for instance never had a business model. The people who created these platforms were just people that assumed that people in the community were good, and they were expecting the best of them and vice-versa.

They acted as the waiter and the patron in Lentils as Anything. They understood that producer and consumer are not two separate entities but quite the opposite, they are part of the same game and they need each other to continue playing. So why don’t we just assume that we are good and that we want to be happy? Why don’t media trust us and accept the strength  of the interaction between humans and technology? At the end, all these great achievements can be undermined by our idea of being fixed to former dynamics that in their time were appropriate but fortunately not anymore.

Lentil as anything

“Is a unique vegetarian restaurant that is run as a not-for-profit community organisation and largely staffed by volunteers. Our philosophy is to allow the customer to decide what they want to pay for thier food and drinks. You decide the worth of the food, the experience, and the philosophy then upon leaving put an anonymous donation into the box on the counter. At Lentils, we aspire to provide a new model of community organisation.

One that addresses social isolation experienced by new migrants and socially isolated people. We provide support and training for refugees, youth and other members of our community who are struggling to find an opportunity in their new social environment. All four locations also operate as training facilities for trainees to enter the hospitality industry. Lentil as Anything started in 2000 and now has four locations, one at Blessington Street, St. Kilda, another at the Abbotsford Convent in St. Heliers Street, Abbotsford and a new local has opened at 233 Barkly Street, Footscray. It also runs the canteen at the Collingwood College, the first ever school canteen to be run in this manner. Lentilians believe Australia’s strength is in its multiculturalism and social inclusion.

We want to develop and encourage ideals of trust, generosity and respect. We provide food to countless people without drawing attention to their financial circumstances and encourage the interaction and involvement from people from all walks of life. Lentils seek to encourage interaction, cultural exchange and community growth. It is also developing programs in addition to its restaurants, using our unique community development model to address the hardship of inequality that would normally be experienced by the people who come to and work at Lentils. We provide Immigration Support via a dedicated Imigration Consultunt and allocation of cultural exchange visas. We also provide long term term emergency accomodation for our volunteers.”

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