Online Publications Still Think They Can Get Away With Charging For Access

from the not-unless-you're-something-special dept

As various news publications struggle to find new business models, they keep jumping back to the idea of “if we could just get people to pay…” And, then they look at the very, very, very few success stories online of charging for content (such as the Wall Street Journal) and think “hey, we can do that…” Except, they can’t, for the most part. The WSJ gets away with it because the level of their reporting really is heads and shoulders above others on certain topics — and it happens to be on topics which matter significantly to many people (i.e., they can make money based on that info). Unless you have both very specialized and highly valuable content that is not well covered elsewhere, you’re going to have trouble charging. And, of course, even then you might have trouble. Cutting off people through a subscription wall presents additional problems, such as convincing any new readers you’re actually worth it compared to all the free content out there — and, most importantly, staying a part of the relevant conversation. These days, that’s a lot more important than the content itself (though few newspapers recognize it yet). Also, focusing on charging simply opens up an opportunity for others to create similarly compelling and valuable content for free… and siphoning away your paying readership.

So, it’s pretty surprising that anyone thinks that U.S. News and World Report has even the slightest chance of making it work, but folks at the magazine apparently think people will pay $20/year for an online subscription. It’s difficult to see how this would work — considering that there’s plenty of (free) competition that covers similar material (and already has a better reputation for it). It seems like a last gasp effort by a U.S. News that has greatly trimmed back over the past couple of years.

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Comments on “Online Publications Still Think They Can Get Away With Charging For Access”

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Adam Wasserman (profile) says:

The real issue

The real issue (in my experience) is that most publishers do not really understand the economics (in the academic sense of the word) of their own business.

Few of them understand that they are brokers. Of what you might ask? They are brokers of attention, they “buy” people’s attention and then sell that attention to advertisers.

The problem facing the industry is that there has been a sea change in the supply and demand. Prior to the Internet, attention was relatively abundant compared to the supply of content (the medium of exchange with which publishers “bought” the user’s attention).

Today there is an overabundance of content, which makes the reader’s attention the scarce commodity, so the “cost” of capturing that attention has increased dramatically.

Whereas previously attention was so abundant and content so scarce, publishers could actually charge both advertisers and readers, today reader’s will only pay for content that will make them money AND is unavailable from any other source.

However the overabundance presents opportunities that traditional publishers are very slow in picking up on. One in particular: the information glut is so serious, that reader’s (and other information consumers) need tools to help them self-select the content that they are interested in (out of the sea of content that they are not interested in). News papers have people who are highly trained professionals in that: editorial staff.

Publishers have assets that can be re-purposed to generate revenues, all they have to do is accept the changed economics.

Michael (user link) says:


While insteresting, these comments are purely directed at “newspaper” style publications. The B2B sector has been running paid subs to their news publications for years – very successfully.

In our case (, we have done this for 10 years and even subs for our auto publication are up in the last QTR. Vertical niches (even consumer ones) are far more recession proof than generic publications and might well find they can also develop a healthy online subscriber economy.

thomas (profile) says:

Been tried, not likely to work now.

About the only way to get people to pay like this is if you have something truly unique that you can’t get elsewhere. News? come on, there are uncounted free sites with news. You might have some luck selling a subscription to a full online version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but news? Their advertisers won’t like it either.

Brandon says:

PC Mag

In a similar situation, I’m likely to cancel my subscription to PC Magazine since I found out the last issue was the last paper edition they’re doing. Without charging any less, all future editions will be in digital form and e-mailed to me. Well, for one, it should be cheaper for me because I’m sure it’s a lot cheaper for them to produce! And for two, I usually read my magazines during my lunch at work. I’m not going to drag my laptop to the break room or out to a restaurant so I can still read their magazine. Since PC World is almost the exact same thing and will still deliver to my real mailbox outside my house, I guess they will be getting all my subscription money now.

Jon G says:

Re: Charging is bogus

“…Everything is free or not worth reading”

Actually most everything free is not worth reading. Content is cheap, useful content is worth paying for, and in the glut of every-man-with-a-keyboard internet information, there’s a lot of useless information, all of it free, and most of it worth what you pay for it.

As an IT professional I subscribe to several content sites that have useful information, industry news, and resources that are invaluable to me. I pay for them because they’re worth reading.

Most of what is free on the Internet isn’t worth reading, and sadly, that’s true of what most newspapers print. It’s not worth reading, so why pay for it. Give us content that is good, worth reading, and of value and we’ll pay for it.

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