We've had plenty of stories lately explaining why trying to charge for news online is not a very good idea, but Duane alerts us to Cecil Adams from the famed "The Straight Dope"
and his take on the matter, after someone suggested that all newspapers should band together and start charging for online content. Cecil's response is so good that it's hard to know just which parts to quote. Since it covers a lot of similar ground to what we've covered in the past, we'll focus on the part that discusses TSD's own experiment with charging for its message boards. It's especially interesting because TSD's experiment "worked" in that they brought in a fair amount of money... but Cecil still thinks it's a bad idea, and explains why TSD dropped the subscription:
Impressive numbers notwithstanding, for years we couldn't figure out a way to make the SDMB generate a dime. Finally at a meeting one day, Mike Lenehan, my first editor, said, "We could charge!" My immediate thought was: I should have beaned this guy with an eraser instead of that brick. However, lacking an alternative plan, we tried it. To everyone's surprise, it worked. Several thousand people paid good money for the privilege of posting, and paid again when their subscriptions ran out. (The great majority of our visitors are non-posting lurkers, in case you're wondering about the numerical disparity; merely reading the board has always been free.) For years we pulled in a tidy sum of cash each month.
But here's the thing. It was a tidy but non-growing sum of cash. What's more, the previously steady increase in visitors flattened out. Tiring of convent life, we decided to rejoin the real world and discontinued subscriptions last August, shrewdly timing this to coincide with the current economic collapse. (Being the world's smart human is one thing; having a head for business is something else.) Visitor growth immediately resumed its upward climb.
In short, subscriptions are self-limiting. But that's only half the story. The other half is this: Your content -- that term is always going to grate -- is your own best advertisement. The Straight Dope, again, is a good example. (The Straight Dope is a good example of a lot of things.) My online archive, consisting of the totality of human knowledge distilled into convenient 800-word chunks, has always been available for free -- currently more than 2,800 columns. We make no effort to promote this, and why should we? Whenever people Google the questions that really bug them, inevitably we pop up. As a result -- I'm looking at quantcast now -- we drew 845,700 visitors last month. Chicagotribune.com pulled in 2.7 million, which, granted, is more. However, the Trib is part of a multibillion-dollar corporation that employs thousands (well, it used to be thousands; what it is after all the layoffs I hesitate to say). TSD employs a few steadfast disciples and me. Lesson: If you're producing a quality editorial product, put it out there gratis. You want the world to know.
This is why I'm still skeptical of the usual suspects trotted out as big "success stories." Let's see how it works in the long run. If you lock up your content -- even if it generates some revenue today -- you're cutting yourself off from the conversation, and making it that much more difficult to grow and be in position to reap the rewards of greater traffic in the future.