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The problem with charging for content

by Giles Turnbull -- 2002/03/26

You must have noticed it - the fast-growing trend among content sites to start charging for content. But just because it works for some, it won't necessarily work for all, and there appear to be a lot of site owners who have not grasped that yet.

One of the main problems is age-old, it's been around since the earliest days of the web: why pay for something you can get for free elsewhere?

News, one of the most important kinds of online content, is the subject of a lot of profit-making ideas at the moment. Yes, some sites have charged for access for a long time, and made it work. But I can't help feeling that visitors to The Times, faced with a demand for payment, will simply look elsewhere for their news.

Despite coverage of the so-called End of Free, there are still a great many places where people can get free, high-quality news online. And while these free sources still exist, there is very little incentive for anyone to cough up money to access one of the paid-for services.

People are usually happy to pay when they perceive that the thing they are paying for has some value for them. The essentials of news are facts, and facts are easy to find on the web. People who will be prepared to pay to read The Times will be people who are particularly keen on reading a certain columnist who writes nowhere else; or people who feel particularly close to the newspaper's political agenda. There will be a few, but not many.

The Register's prediction is that as readership falls, so will advertiser interest, and therefore income. The Times is simply not different enough to command that sort of loyalty from an online audience. Very few publications are.

The ones that do stand a chance are the ones that are significantly, obviously different. And most of them are small, online-only publications run for the love of it. Email newsletters like NTK and mbites, both of which report news, in their unique ways, but do it so differently to everyone else that they earn the trust of their readers. They are examples of online services that could impose a fee on readers and make it work. Web sites that are just like other web sites aren't different enough to for anyone to care.