Not all information wants to be free.

Media criticism.
Feb. 18 2009 7:33 PM

Not All Information Wants To Be Free

Inventing and refining the rich content that wants to be sold.

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If I were in charge of recruiting paid users, I'd ape Apple, the Times, and the Kindle to create a boutique environment in which to push content. Luckily for Slate, I don't have that duty. The Plastic Logic platform, or something like it, is an obvious place to Kindle-ize or iTune-ize various types of online content.

You don't necessarily have to control the device to succeed at selling online content. Consider the Financial Times'Web site, FT.com, which had 99,000 paying customers as of last summer; the Wall Street Journal's WSJ.com, which counts 1,079,000 subscribers (some of whom also get the print edition); and the Journal's sister publication, Barron's, which has 150,000 Web subscribers. The mother company also sells the super-premium Barron's Daily Stock Alert—$795 for a year, right now—but doesn't release subscription numbers for it. A combined 2.3 million subscribe to its Dow Jones Factiva and Dow Jones Newswires.

Other examples of online success include Nexis (8 million "seat users"), the Bloomberg terminal, the 50,000 Times premium crosswords subscribers, and paying customers at NewspaperArchive.com; CooksIllustrated.com and FineCooking.com; Xbox Live; genealogical, fantasy sports, gambling, and pornography sites; and elsewhere. ESPN360.com, currently a loss leader for a number of large Internet service providers, could easily command paying customers if placed outside the fence.

Every successful paid site competes with free sites, and as often as not, competes with itself by offering its own free content. The free stuff is used to upsell the customer to the paid varieties. The extreme application of this model is giving away 99 percent of the product and selling 1 percent—it's called "freemium," and Wired editor Chris Anderson talks about it in this interview and on his blog.

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If the commercial Internet didn't get going until 1995, then we're only 13 or 14 years into the Web era. When television was 13 or 14, practically no pay-TV operations existed outside of a relatively few cable television operations. Starting the 1970s and then in the 1980s, paid TV in the form of HBO and other premium stations started to take root. Radio, born in the early 1920s, didn't arrive in a paid form until just early in this century. Very few online newspapers or magazines are sufficiently useful to demand a paying premium. But for those who hold dear the notion that information on the Web will forever want to be free, it's early yet. Keep your eyes peeled for publications whose Web sites are sprouting nonbrowser apps, refining their content, experimenting with new reading devices, bulking up their databases, and above all, publications that are listening to the man from Google who this week wrote:

[O]nline journalism is still in its relative infancy. … The experience of consuming news on the web today fails to take full advantage of the power of technology. It doesn't understand what users want in order to give them what they need. When I go to a site like the New York Times … it should know what I am interested in and what has changed since my last visit. If I read the story on the US stimulus package only six hours ago, then just show me the updates the reporter has filed since then (and the most interesting responses from readers, bloggers, or other sources). … Beyond that, present to me a front page rich with interesting content selected by smart editors, customized based on my reading habits (tracked with my permission). Browsing a newspaper is rewarding and serendipitous, and doing it online should be even better. This will not by itself solve the newspapers' business problems, but our heritage suggests that creating a superior user experience is the best place to start.

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Is the iPhone App Store software as content or content as software? Thanks to Adrian Monck for the Google guy clip and more. Send more examples of successful paid sites to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the words paid content in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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