One idea proposed to help keep news organizations afloat amidst the stormy seas of free online content has been micropayments. Imagine an iTunes for the news world: you pay between a fraction of a cent and two cents per article you read online. Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab and the U.K.’s Guardian have been following the debate. Would it work? Would people pay?

We don’t need newspapers for their own sake. Clay Shirky, NYU professor and prophet of Internet technologies, said on Tuesday that every town under population 500,000 would “sink into endemic civil corruption” without the watchful eye of investigative journalism, i.e. regional newspapers.

Typically we appreciate things more once we’ve lost them: the spoiled fruit we didn’t eat in time, the expired coupon for a free DVD rental, a habitable planet (cut carbon emissions now!), etc. Could micropayments solve the problem by providing income to news organizations before they go under?

Don’t count on  it, says the Guardian. Surveys conducted by paidContent.UK, an organization following England’s digital media, suggest that people are highly unwilling to pay for online content. The data analyzed over three days at the Guardian (note: I did not pay to access any of it) concludes:

1)    Less than five percent of readers would be willing to pay at all for online content. Should their preferred news sources start charging one day, they would immediately look for another free site (so much for brand loyalty).

2)    Those who are willing to pay want to pay as close to nothing as possible. The survey asked about yearly, daily and per-article fees for reading news content online; the respondents consistently selected the cheapest option.

3)    People would prefer a yearly subscription, giving them the freedom to read any article at anytime, over micropayments, where a reader is charged for every article they read.

To date, online payment schemes have been successful for the world’s two major financial papers, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. However, their readers want to act on information before sharing it with anyone else. Access to financial news is seen as an investment with a tangible return. People, though acting similarly out of self-interest, do not see a return on their investment in general news. Until, of course, their local government resembles the Corleone family. Then they’ll wish they’d had a subscription to their regional paper—maybe.