Charging for online content may not be as poor a strategy as it's often depicted.
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
A STATEMENT ON KANSAS' Chanute Tribune's Web site reads, "A startling number of readers who insist the online version has so little value they wouldn't dream of paying $4 a month for it nevertheless are angry they no longer have access."
That's a pretty powerful retort to a certain columnist who is still feeling defeated about shelling out $5.95 for a one--day pass to Editor & Publisher's online archives. A few sites have been charging for daily content for a while--the Wall Street Journal, Inside.com and Salon.com are probably the best known. Conventional wisdom says that these sites attract thousands of subscribers because they offer specialized content to a fiercely loyal group of users.
With online ad sales plumetting and users acclimating to e--commerce, some general news sites are now trying a similar model.
Pioneers include the Chanute Tribune and Idaho's Lewiston Morning Tribune, which began charging for their stories in 1999. In April, Minnesota's Rochester Post--Bulletin restricted online access to print--edition customers (see Bylines, May). Earlier that month Media General, owner of 25 dailies, announced that it would institute a fee system at some of its newspaper sites by the end of the year. In August, the Albuquerque Journal became the biggest site by far to take the plunge, restricting all non--sales content to paying customers.
From a functional perspective, these sites have only put a toe in the water. The first two don't have secure online registration or per--article options; the Post--Bulletin doesn't even offer a Web--only subscription to local residents. They have, however, distinguished themselves by limiting access to today's news and information. (It's long been common practice to charge for archives, either independently or through collective services like NewsLibrary.com.)
Interestingly, there's little support from the sidelines. Some columnists and publishers have recently predicted that general media can never succeed with this strategy. They say that users won't pay for what they've been getting for free, and that general news sites don't offer anything that can't be found elsewhere. Besides, they say, it grates against the "culture" of the Internet.
Considering the short and wild history of online business models, it seems premature to dismiss the potential of fee--based systems, particularly for the reasons cited above.
We're not talking about decades of indoctrination; most sites and surfers have only been online for a few experimental years. In the beginning, online news was an unreliable but promising novelty. Today many of us are hooked on high--quality, up--to--the--minute information; the speed and convenience of online delivery are worth something. Nobody wants to pay, but the premise that users would boycott online news out of indignation underestimates its value.
Of course, it's true that people won't pay for the same information they can get elsewhere. Weather data, for example, is very popular among viewers and advertisers alike, yet so generic and widely available that it would be hard to charge for it. Similarly, classifieds thrive on high page views and free access.
But a key distinction between the Web and other mediums is that an online publication can run two business models at the same time. In addition to standard news fare, all sites have the potential to offer something special. That can be an innovative sports section, a popular feature and, yes, even ultralocal news stories. As for the "culture" of the World Wide Web, if there really is such a thing, it is the freedom to communicate, not the right to download free articles. It's frustrating that we can't graze as freely as we used to--links increasingly lead to blocked--off stories--but that's more a logistical matter than a philosophical one.
In fact, most of the so--called attitudinal barriers to information e--commerce boil down to practical challenges. Many sites have yet to overcome basic usability issues like electronic registration, let alone trial subscriptions and revisiting purchased stories.
Payment structure is even more of a puzzle. Per--article fees can be so low that they cost more to process than they bring in. On the other hand, individual site subscriptions could be overwhelming if the practice became common; surfing a dozen sites could cost a fortune. Some predict the answer lies in single accounts that let users roam hundreds of sites, racking up a tab in the background. Or perhaps the solution is something today's visionaries haven't imagined yet.
User payment models might be doomed for a number of reasons, but at this stage the concept should be viewed as an unexplored opportunity and not a closed door. If our favorite news sites were to provide robust functionality and a realistic payment system, many of us would eventually forgive them. And maybe we'd even pay up.