Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Making online pay


Rumor has it that the New York Times is abandoning its pay-only Times Select experiment. Let's hope so.

The New York Times is poised to stop charging readers for online access to its Op-Ed columnists and other content, The Post has learned.

After much internal debate, Times executives - including publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. - made the decision to end the subscription-only TimesSelect service but have yet to make an official announcement, according to a source briefed on the matter.

The timing of when TimesSelect will shut down hinges on resolving software issues associated with making the switch to a free service, the source said.

Personally this wasn't a huge deal, because we subscribe to the Sunday Times and get TimesSelect access thrown in as part of the deal.

But as a blogger it was very annoying, since nobody likes being linked to content they can't read. That led to three options: annoy my readers, don't blog about Select stories and columns, or quote so much of the story that it defeated the purpose of the firewall (and left me open to charges of copyright violation). It was especially annoying when I would read something in the dead-tree version that I wanted to write about, only to discover that the online version was in SelectLand.

Because I had access, I referred to TimesSelect articles when necessary. But I'm sure many, many people simply learned to live without the content -- and their lives were not noticeably poorer because of it.

The Wall Street Journal has the same problem with its Online Journal service. It's good content, but not so good that I can't live without it. The result is that WSJ content gets a lot less consideration in my blogging than it would otherwise.

I fully sympathize with both the Times and the Journal and all online publications, who are still trying to find ways to get people to pay for high-quality content. As bloggers, we're in the same boat -- and the lack of paying customers is why most of us do this as a hobby rather than a profession. The $30 or so I've earned on this blog in the last year doesn't exactly pay the bills.

Of course, there are other considerations. For instance, I like writing, which is one reason I blog. But even with that excuse blogging is a poor investment. Last year I earned $474 from selling a short story. If I was making rational decisions about my writing time, I'd ditch blogging and spend those hours writing fiction instead. Even if I only sold one story every 10 years, I'd be ahead of the game.

In the end I blog because I enjoy it, it makes me feel engaged in the political process, and I'm full of ideas and opinions that I want to share. But it sure would be nice if the market rewarded those efforts, instead of reserving its love for the sites that can draw a gajillion hits -- enough to make decent money despite the paltry online ad rates.

That's a long-winded way of saying that I'm all for coming up with ways to make money on quality content. But requiring registration seems to be a losing proposition. A lot of people -- myself included -- hate having to register at sites in order to view content, even when doing so is free. If people are resistant to registering when it's free, they're even more resistant to registering when it costs money.

Requiring registration also hamstrings the great strength of the Web -- the ability to surf multiple sites, gathering information from disparate sources. Registration encourages people to concentrate into segregated communities, an overall ill in a diverse democracy.

Admittedly, the problem is more one of reader perception than an actual legitimate gripe. People have no problem paying to subscribe to the Times, but balk at registering to read it online; that makes no logical sense. Why are we willing to pay for information in one form, but not in another, more convenient form?

Nonetheless, it's the reality. And it may remain that way until content starts to disappear because there's not enough money to support it.

But I think companies will find a middle way -- indeed, they've already begun. Notice how the online ads are getting more and more annoying? I especially hate the ones that expand to cover the article you're trying to read until you click on it to make it go away.

But that's the point. If the ads are really annoying, you'd probably be more willing to register in order to make them go away. And if registering brought other perks as well -- expanded comment options, access to sortable databases instead of static articles, expanded photo galleries, discussion boards -- suddenly registering might start to have value. For the best sites, people might even be willing to pay a reasonable fee. And publications could charge a premium for those non-annoying ads that they show to subscribers.

The basic idea -- free-but-annoying content to nonsubscribers, a much more rewarding experience for subscribers -- would preserve the publicity (and public influence) value of free content while providing a way for the creators to make money.

Even better would be if sites banded together to form a registration cooperative. That way, instead of having to register at dozens of different sites, you could register once and gain access to them all. Most of my objection to registering at multiple sites is the hassle of keeping track of them all.

Establishing a system of micropayments would help, too. If we all had something like a Paypal account, and accessing an article cost a penny, and payment was automated, most people would gladly pay without thinking about it. Reading 30 articles a day would cost you less than $10 a month. But for a blogger like me who gets about 3,000 hits a month, that would translate into $30 a month -- not a lot, but an order of magnitude more than I get now.

A site that got 1,000 hits a day would earn $3,600 a year -- not enough to live on, but not total chump change, either.

A site that got 10,000 hits a day would earn enough ($36,000) for the blogger to live on.

A site like Captain's Quarters, which gets 30,000 hits a day, would earn enough ($110,000) to be quite comfortable.

Any such micropayment system would be a huge target for fraud, as it would be very tempting to steal a penny or two from millions of people and end up with some serious cash. The safeguards would have to be robust. But again the general principle applies: people will start paying for content when the price is right and the mechanism is extremely convenient.

Now that the Times has abandoned its initiative, maybe it will throw its weight behind a push for such developments -- developments that are needed if the Internet is to mature into a true communications node, where great content -- provided by fairly compensated producers -- is just a click away.

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