Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
October 12, 200910:26 PM

When We Switch From Free To Paid

When it comes to the troubles of the newspaper and magazine industry, the greater debate always comes full circle to when/how they will begin to charge for content. Some people call it crazy, others think there is no choice, but how will the general mass population react?

Vanity Fair has a great article in their November 2009 issue titled, Rupert to Internet: It's War! Journalist Michael Wolff dissects Rupert Murdoch and his plans to change News Corp.'s current online practices of giving the content away for free to a paid model:

"From the failure of Delphi, one of the first public-access Internet providers, in 1993, to iGuide, the precursor to Yahoo and Google, which closed within months of its launch, to his son James's aborted Internet-investing spree in the late 90s, to the great promise of MySpace, which was shortly flattened by Facebook, to the second launch of, which Murdoch closed this year, after four months of operation, Murdoch's Internet starts and stops have engendered at News Corp., in the description of Peter Bale, who once ran the Web site of The Times of London and now runs MSN in the U.K., a relative 'fear or abhorrence of technology.'"

Is it really about the Internet and these new Digital channels or have we got it all wrong?

There's no doubt that many people are opting for their laptops and Google News in the morning over the local newspaper, but the shift away from reading the news is as old as the advent of radio, TV and whatever else came after that. For years, educational facilities and the book publishing industry have been complaining that the activity of reading keeps dropping year over year. Couple that with the advent of many new and interesting media channels (and yes, this includes the Internet) and you don't really have a digitization of the newspaper industry that is killing it, you simply have more choices and options for the average consumer than ever before.

Newspaper have never been heavily into the concept of innovation.

They always owned a large portion of the local market and that's what attracted (and continues to attract) most advertisers. My guess is that newspaper publishers saw the Internet as an additional distribution channel to demonstrate the quality of their content and get the mass public interested in buying their paper products. When that conversion never came to be, and the realization set in that people were more than fine with just reading the news online or grabbing some quick headlines from an iPhone app, the game needed to be changed again.

It's been documented and debated to death.

Whether the newspaper and magazine industry made the right choices is not as important as the business choices they are about to make. If they choose to charge for the content that has been free for almost 15 years now, they're sure to have some semblance of a revenue stream, but there will be other media companies who might come along and offer up that content again for free (and figure out some other kind of revenue model beyond paid subscription). If they choose to no longer let companies like Google serve up their content in their generic search results, fewer people will be exposed to those traditional media brands. If they leave things as they are, they are somewhat stuck in a model where there is a tremendous amount of Internet traffic but not enough advertising interest to support it.

How can you charge for something that was free?

Simply put, you can't. But, you can charge for premium, new and different kinds of content. Perhaps if these newspaper and magazine publishers actually embrace the idea that "publishing" online is more than just copying and pasting your traditional media text onto the Internet, there may be many new and interesting money making ventures ahead of them (at first glance, charging for a great iPhone app is one, small way). From audio, video, images and yes, text, to a better understanding as to how tools and platforms like Blogging and Twitter are moving us ever-closer to a real-time publishing world, perhaps these publishers can really start developing and marketing new publishing tools and pieces of content for the Internet, mobile and whatever new digital platforms are going to be developed in the coming years?

Publishers need to understand that the future of publishing is not about charging for what they used to create, but rather charging for newer types of publishing platforms and pieces of content we can't (and couldn't) get somewhere else.

By Mitch Joel