I Wish That You’d Pay for Web Content. But Would You?

By  |  Friday, May 15, 2009 at 9:53 am

T-PollImagine someone spending fifteen years furiously digging themselves into a deep, dangerous hole…and then bitterly complaining about the fact that he or she is trapped at the bottom of a deep, dangerous hole. That’s the situation with today’s media industry..of which, of course, I count myself as a member. Starting in the mid-1990s, publishers began to give away content for free on the Web, a decision which profoundly impacted the economics of the business. Now the business is crumbling. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the Associated Press is grousing about the business model which they helped to create. And publishers are trying to figure out how to charge for what they’ve given away for years.

The New York Observer has an interesting report on plans the New York Times is formulating to get online readers to pay in some fashion. One scenario involves Times Web content being free until a visitor’s reached a certain word count of number of page views; another would launch a membership system that sounds a lot like a public TV pledge drive. The first sounds unwieldy; the second might work for an august institution like the Times, but won’t save most of the industry.

I cheerfully admit that I’d like to see media companies figure out a way to make consumers comfortable with the idea of forking over cash for digital content. As a reader, I want to see the publications I love prosper, or at least manage to stay in business. As a journalist, I’d like to work in an industry with a business model that ensures that sites like, oh, Technologizer can thrive.

(Note: I have no plans to demand money from folks who read this site. But I just set up a Kindle version of Technologizer using Amazon’s new self-serve blog publishing system–the listing is live, but you won’t be able to subscribe for a day or two. It’ll cost $1.99 a month and I kinda think that I’ll be lucky if I make enough from my cut to buy myself a burrito every now and then.)

I wish I had some profound insight into how the media biz might make readers willing to pay for content again. I don’t. But these points seem self-evident:

1) Once you’ve begun to give something away for free, it’s mighty hard to convince someone that he or she should pay for it;

2) It’s tough to charge when you have direct competitors that don’t;

3) It is possible to charge for usually-free content if it’s in a form that provides new benefits (which is why people will pay for CSI as a DVD box set or an iTunes download even though it’s free on CBS);

4) It is possible to charge for high-quality stuff you can’t otherwise get (which is how HBO became a big business in the 1970s, even though TV had been free for decades);

5) Charging for something new that was never free isn’t inherently implausible (which is why the notion of paying two bucks a month to read blogs on the Kindle makes more sense than blogs announcing that they’re instituting a $2 subscription fee on the Web).

Add up all of the above, and I still don’t see a scenario developing in the immediate future in which millions of people pay meaningful amounts of money for the digital equivalents of newspapers and magazines. Then again, much of the Web’s history to date wasn’t predicted by anyone, so I’m not siding with the folks who say that it’s inevitable that the Web will be (mostly) free forever either.

Let’s end this with a T-Poll:


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Martha Says:

    I’m kind of biased on this, because I write web content, but I would pay on two conditions:

    1) The pricing was right. Don’t try to charge me 50 cents to read one newspaper article when the whole paper costs 75 cents. They’d have to be really *micro* micropayments.

    2) The process was easy enough — didn’t interrupt my surfing too much and required only one log-in to access most sites.

  2. Richard Says:

    True, unique, created content is worth paying for but…

    I used to pay newspapers for content. Then I found out that most of what they print is an AP feed and not true journalism, and ultimately of very little value. The NY Times/Judith Miller scandal demonstrates how corrupt major media outlets are. I doubt she is an isolated case of spin and lies masquerading as journalism. She was the instance where it was unveiled.

    I see the slanted opinions offered as news on cable news channels and wonder why anyone thinks that is journalism. At least it is sort of free. I see the same news items reported on dozens of web sites, all trying to seem like they broke the story, and again most of which is of little value. At least that is free.

    I used to pay for the Wall Street Journal online. But then Rupert Murdoch got control and I canceled my subscription. I don’t miss it. The news I used to get from them is available elsewhere.

    Murdoch is trying to change what is probably unchangeable, that the hay day of major media outlets is over and never will return.

  3. John Baxter Says:

    I have paid–for MacFixIt. That got rid of the redacted ads, and gained archives and some other content. (Then they became less useful, and I wound up paying to not visit for more time than I would have preferred–it was my fault they ran an auto-renew I didn’t want.)

    I would probably pay again, given suitable cause. (And I’m buying Seattle Times on my Kindle–my first regular payments to either Seattle Times or Seattle Post-Intelligencer since I moved to the Olympic Peninsula 20 years ago.)

  4. Josh Says:

    No, I will not pay for the vast majority of online content because I simply don’t see the value. While I love reading Technologizer, I just couldn’t bring myself to whip out the credit card for it. It’s not that I’m cheap, it’s just that there is so much available for free on the web, and unless everything went to a paid model, I doubt I’d pay much for anything.

    HOWEVER, there are caveats to my position. For example, if Technologizer were to publish a “special issue” (maybe an annual or bi-annual thing, for example) that I considered to be useful, I would consider paying for it if the price were right.

    It is also possible to use online media to build a brand and then use that brand to generate revenue, such as from books, videos, and merchandise. But it can be tough to turn online readers into paying customers.

  5. Anne Louise Bannon Says:

    I’m a blogger looking for ways for my blogs to pay for my living. I do remember in the mid-90s, when the Internet was just going mainstream, thinking that it would end up looking a lot like television – with advertising supporting what was otherwise free content. The nature of what the Internet was originally set up to do, which was to make sharing information a lot easier, kind of meant that getting the information easily and freely was part of its DNA, if you will. So between that and the fact that TV and radio have always given their content away for “free,” complaining about free content doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think the bigger problem (which I did not anticipate) is that the supply of content is so vast that it all but eclipses the demand, thus suppressing ad rates. The good news for me is that I don’t need $500,000 a day to keep the lights on. I could be very happy with $100 a day and will probably have to be happy on less. As one producer I spoke with last summer put it, nobody’s going to get rich on the Internet, but we’ll all get paid. I can live with that, and hopefully, on it.

    Anne Louise Bannon

  6. JDoors Says:

    If I see an ad, then I’m already paying for the content. That there isn’t enough ad money to go around is a pretty fair indication that the content isn’t yet compelling, unique or desireable enough to BE paid content. There aren’t enough companies, many making billions of dollars, willing to invest in content, but individuals should or will be willing to do so? I doubt it.

    Some “out there” ideas; What if ISPs had to pay for content? (The content is the overwhelming reason we contract with an ISP in the first place.) What if the government takes over the printed news industry? (Seems to be “the thing” to do lately, they ARE for-profit corporations just as the auto industry is, though you’d have to make sure the government has NO say in editorial decisions.) Sink or swim. (Like city newspapers up to this point, eventually one or two may eke out a living while all others are relegated to scrambling for table scraps — kinda like the Internet with one or two sites in each of several categories grabbing all the attention and money, while everyone else is wondering, “Um, WHY am I doing this?”)

  7. Harry McCracken Says:


    Oh, I agree completely that anybody who stops by Technologizer and pays attention is, indeed, “paying.” Based on having a sizable and attentive audience, the site can get the advertising it needs to pay for everything.

    But I don’t think that stuff online is inherently not valuable enough to pay for. When I was at PC World and people asked about how the economics of our business were changing, I pointed out that folks would happily pay $6 at the newsstand for an issue of PCW, or $25 or more to subscribe–but the same people were nowhere near being interested in paying for PCWorld.com, which had all the content of the magazine and much more. People regard different media differently, and the Web remains mostly a free zone for several reasons–including the fact that everything IS free (it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since every site competes with other free sites) and a resistance, I think, to pay for virtual goods (the notion of paying $6 for ink and paper makes sense to people, even if PCWorld.com in its digital form is arguably more useful).

    Anyhow, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m happily making a go of Technologizer using the only business model which makes sense in 2009, which is to be fully ad-supported. I don’t look at anyone who uses the site as being a freeloader–you’re the guys who make it possible for the site to be a viable business enterprise.


  8. KathyLee Says:

    I do pay for some content: groklaw and This Week in Tech shows. One I read almost everyday and the other, I listen to the multiple podcasts every day during my commute. I am used to surfing across websites for free, but I would pay for compelling content. Most of the tech sites post rumors (especially prevalent on Apple-related sites), or post the same exact topics as every other site (emulating the AP-written articles that most newspapers regurgitate).

    Anyway, I think unique websites, such as offering a service, or knowledge on a subject, perhaps offering a book, or more in depth articles/services in association with a free web-based portal, or even online-only versions of newspapers/magazines, could work. The people that insist on free everything, get what they pay for! Maybe paid-for content would increase the quality of the content – like HBO original programming over network offerings.

  9. JDoors Says:

    @McCraken: “I pointed out that folks would happily pay $6 at the newsstand for an issue of PCW, or $25 or more to subscribe–but the same people were nowhere near being interested in paying for PCWorld.com, which had all the content of the magazine and much more.”

    That’s a really good example that had me scratchin’ my head to understand the dynamics involved. I’m one of those who USED to pay for PCW, until the useful vs useless content ratio went all out of whack (for me).

    That points to one of the advantages of Internet content: It can be micro-targeted while still reaching a large audience (anyone with Internet access), OR, since it’s essentially free, one DOESN’T MIND scrolling past the uninteresting stuff.

    If you want to create paid content, which way do you go? Micro-targeting an audience, hoping enough will not only find you, but will also pay up to keep you in business? Or covering everything your audience could POSSIBLY be interested in, increasing your potential audience, but at the risk of annoying many since they may be paying for content they aren’t interested in?

    I think print media has fallen victim to the latter.