I was pinged by Charles Dubow at Businessweek.com who pointed out this post by Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist re-arguing that there is indeed a viable market for paid content and publishers who charge for their content in print should have every right to do so online.
Charles sent the url under the subject: “What do you think?”
He asked this because I went to the mat in 1995 to make Forbes.com a free online publication, arguing in the face of Dow Jones’ decision to go out with a subscription model for the Wall Street Journal that traffic and scope beat restricted and paid. Forbes.com certainly wasn’t the first free online presence, but it resisted registration and a subscription model for the five years I ran it. Today the site is a traffic monster, with its CEO predicting it will overtake the print parent in revenue sometime soon.
So, 12 years after its launch, should Forbes.com (or any free and open version of a paid print publication) convert to a paid subscription model? Can a publisher take back what was given away and start charging for it?
My argument for a free model comes to a single word: fungible.
Fungible means interchangeable. My fungible test is this: take a story, say an earnings report for a major corporation. Get the versions written by Bloomberg, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, etc. Print them all out on ordinary paper with no logos, no bylines, nothing that would identify their source.
Then show them to an educated reader and ask them to identify which version came from which source. What value does Reuters offer over Bloomberg for straight forward news? Value in news comes from accuracy, clarity, and speed. Let’s assume they all get to the glass at the same time, or close to it (and for traders they are always going to pay for realtime, so let’s not infer that web media models should follow financial feed models)
If news is a commodity (something a veteran journalist like Potts should rail against), then there is always a probability that some low-cost or no-cost provider will come along and undercut whatever fee another publisher may try to charge. This is occurring, to some extent in print, as free metro/commuter rags begin to compete with incumbent print products, but it was and still is a massive issue with online products, where availability of the low cost/no cost alternative is but a click away.
So commodity news is not a strong basis for a paid content model. Therefore, let’s look at unique content, such as opinion/op ed type of content, the sort of thing the New York Times is charging for behind the Times Select cost wall. Potts says this is a success. On what basis? I subscribe to the print version of the Times and get to read Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd the way the Sulzbergers wish I would. I am annoyed, to no end, that I need to verify my print subscription to get to the online versions. The Times has become, as was once said of the Wall Street Journal (whose online version I have subscribed to since it launched) irrelevant, and find myself subconsciously avoiding them altogether, continuing my subscription primarily out of lazy inertia and automatic renewals.
As I avoid them, their traffic lags the free fungibles. So Dow buys Marketwatch and tries to have their cake and traffic too. Yet in this day and age of splatter marketing, large numbers beat niche numbers as long as banners and other online ad units deliver horrific performance numbers measured in basis points. This is why I left online media — until a better ad model is developed — both the paid and the free sites are going to suffer.
The proper question is not whether a paid content model is viable. Sure it is. Porn proves it. And I am not being glib. The bigger question is whether a new generation of readers — the college students of today — are going to pay for the mainstream media brands their parents learned to respect in a paid print model and were willing to pay for on the glass? I doubt they will and that a fungible alternative will always be a click away.