Michael Wolff — not he of McKinsey’s Media Practice, but the one who wrote Burnrate — spoke at the SIIA summit in NYC at the beginning of the month.
He weighs in on subscription vs. free models:
I think the fact that the Journal felt that it was powerful enough to charge, and for a long time everyone regarded the Journal’s activities online as the ultimate. They had unlocked the puzzle. In fact, I don’t think they did. I think they locked themselves into a puzzle.
While the New York Times on the other hand became this ubiquitous information brand. It became finally the national information brand. And it did this, I think, because it was free. So free is the word. And free is what I want to talk about — free information, which in the media industry is now the topic, the theme. This is the thing that is unavoidable, that everyone has to deal with.
In the mid-90s, Neil Budde (now running Yahoo News) was THE man for subscription models and posed a massive challenge to overcome within Forbes and other publications that were wrestling with the inclination to lock their words down behind a subscription model. “Well the Journal is kicking butt by charging!” was thrown in my face every time I tried to argue that the game was about reach, not subs. I was banging the give-it-away-and-get-massive model and lo and behold Jim Cramer tries to nuke the plan with this 1997 screed.
Dark days indeed when we trying to argue the point that even simple registration was enough of deterrent to cause users to shift to friendlier destinations.
Anyway, now comes Wolff saying that the Journal trashed itself by charging and the Times (which is rumored to be mulling a paid model) went global by being free.
I’m a little surprised the paid vs free debate even lingers in this day and age. My read on the Marketwatch acquisition was it was Dow throwing in the towel and admitting they were leaving a lot of money on the ground by choking their pageview inventory behind the subscription wall at the Journal (which I pay for and have paid for since it launched).
Check out Jack Shafer’s “Unbundle-Rebundle” at Slate to see how the winds of give-it-away are blowing through the newspaper industry.