Web Awaits the Big Pay-for-Play Plunge

By: Jennifer Saba Here we are, at least 10 months since the subject of paid Web content rose from passing in silence to inciting cacophony, and still very few newspapers have come forward with any announcements. That doesn't mean it won't happen. This is, after all, an industry in which change occurs at a snail's pace.

One recent survey conducted by Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive and Greg Swanson of ITZ Publishing, on behalf of the American Press Institute, provides some insights. The findings were presented at the API's invitation-only summit in mid-September on economic action plans for newspapers.

The survey, in which more than 100 newspaper publishers were asked to address the subject of pay walls, found that slightly more than half of them believe they could charge successfully. Almost 60% of the respondents said they are considering some sort of pay model, but there's much hemming and hawing about when and if any models will be implemented at all.

Yet that hasn't stopped a slew of companies vying to become the industry's payment method of choice. Journalism Online announced that more than 1,000 content providers have signed "letters of intent." Translation: content providers are at least talking to Journalism Online. (ITZ Publishing also has a relationship with Journalism Online.) Where those conversations will lead is still unknown. Also a mystery are the names of companies "involved" with Journalism Online. A scant few have come to light: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which already charges online for certain Green Bay Packers coverage, is one solid example.

During the same period, Nieman Journalism Lab reported that the Newspaper Association of America requested proposals on paid-content strategies from about a dozen companies. Tech giants such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Oracle submitted papers, as well as such start-ups as CircLabs, which proposes to help newspapers aggregate their audience for advertisers first.

The start-up Zuora, which provides an e-commerce and billing platform for software service and "cloud-storage" companies, thinks it can successfully transition its platform to news content. (The NAA did not contact Zuora.) Its customers include the tech blog GigaOm ? which started charging for premium content ? and Reed Business.

A few metros have recently announced plans to start charging for some content. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, for example, launched an "Access Vikings" section that, at the moment, only requires registration. Terry Sauer, the ST's assistant managing editor for digital, told David Brauer at MinnPost.com the paper plans to start charging, and is currently determining how much ? likely about the price of a cup of coffee. The Star Tribune, like many papers, has experimented with charging for online content in the past.

Generally, however, there's a streak of anxiety among publishers ? many don't want to be the first to try something and see it fail. Alan Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, observes that executives are scared that if they build a pay wall, no one will come. Publishers "have told me they fear they could lose as much as 75% or more of their traffic and banner revenue if they started to charge for content," Mutter tells E&P. Who, among the heavy hitters, wants to be the first to find out? Soon, we'll know.


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