Free or fee?

I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again -- when it comes to the internet, content is king. But now we're seeing a huge push towards content being a cash cow as well as king.

I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again -- when it comes to the internet, content is king.

But now we're seeing a huge push towards content being a cash cow as well as king. Sites are turning their attention to making money, which is probably fair enough, but how they're doing it gives me cause for concern.

A number of sites have moved to a pay-per-view scheme in the last few months. Salon magazine was probably the most high-profile one to do so with its Salon Premium brand. Thirty US dollars a year will see you right for a full subscription, though whether it can sustain the site is anyone's guess. The Australian Financial Review and The Economist likewise charge for some articles for non-subscribers. CNN has started asking users to pay for video content. A tiny few others like The Wall St Journal are famous for charging from day one.

Locally we've seen Newsroom jump the free ship and stop giving away its content. Instead it will charge a fee for anyone who wants to read any of the site. For only $150 ex GST a month (that's right, a month), you can get all the press releases you want.

While I'm sure there's a market for press releases (and I'm tempted to say I'd pay $150 a month not to get them) this seems a steep price for what is in effect someone else's advertising. The convenience of having access to all those releases in one place, rather than having to sign up to mailing lists at all those political parties, companies, agencies and what have you, is probably quite high for those that want press releases, but $150 a month? You also can't sign up for the service electronically; you have to print out the PDF file and post it, along with your cheque, which I find astonishing.

But those examples aside, there seems to be an overwhelming belief among content publishers that readers will be forced to pay for something in the next 18 months or so. And therein lies the dilemma. While the publishers say you'll pay, the readers seem to be saying no, we won't. Let's not forget that there are billions of websites out there, millions of which are of some use and hundreds of thousands of which are completely free. Given the choice between a free site and one where a payment is required, I know which I'd choose. There simply isn't a business case for access to a pay site when there is a free equivalent (if only the software industry were so aware).

But it is the halfway websites, where users can get some information for free but will have to pay for the rest, that I think are the worst of both worlds. This is because the content provider expects to make money, but won't, and the reader/user expects to find something for free, but doesn't. If I've read a news story and want to read up on the background to it, there is little that is more frustrating than running up against a search engine that assures me there is nothing about it in the archives. Paying to search archives is a waste of time because unless you can be assured of a result, you're basically throwing your money away. Anyone who's ever searched an online database will be able to tell you the first dozen hits are probably only going to yield one or two accurate answers.

Yet websites cost money. They cost money to build, money to maintain and money to host. All that comes before you consider paying for the content provider's wage. At Nzoom they have around 40 people working on the site, all of whom are getting a salary (I assume), and unless their banner ads are extremely expensive, I can't imagine they're making a profit.

Here at IDG we have a team of technical staff, sales reps, editors and myself making sure the site and its various offshoots remain online and up to date, yet we have no plans to charge for content. So how can we justify the costs? I know at IDG we consider the readership we bring in to be the payoff. IDGNet readers are not the same as Computerworld's, something which surprised me as I figured they'd be readers looking for a daily fix of news. Some are, of course, but there are many more that aren't and so we can be said to be extending our readership beyond the paper's reach. Those eyeballs (advert-friendly, hopefully) help justify the ongoing cost of my JetStream connection and are the foundation of a business plan that doesn't involve taking money off the reader -- at least not directly.

Will paid sites take off? Some have, while others have fallen flat on their faces (does anyone read Slate any more?). As with most things in the world of online commerce, much is still being decided upon.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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