About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« Chronicles of a Chronically Ill Cash Cow | Main | Paid Content, Part 2 »

February 15, 2007


Nathan Roberts

Users can get into most of these sites now free with a thing called a netpass from: http://news.congoo.com

Its some kind of newly formed publisher consortium

Bruce Bartlett

I think that one thing people have a resistance to is buying a continuing subscription to a publication they may only access from time to time. I think newspapers need to provide a simple way for occasional readers to pay to access their web sites on a per use basis, the same way they sell copies on news stands. Let people click a button and pay $1 for a one-day pass and I think you might have the makings of a paying model that works.

Now a PR Guy

I think it's important to remember that the NY Times has something very different to offer than most papers. Same with the Wall Street Journal.

My former employer, a major Metro Daily, tried paid content but it failed. Why? Because it wasn't special and exclusive. No one outside the metro area wanted to read what their columnists had to say and everyone inside the area could find out by picking up a copy of the paper at work.

The NY Times columnists and features are very unique and have national reach. This model ONLY works with media that has national reach -- and their aren't a lot of those anymore.

NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, LA Times (sorta), Inky (not anymore really), and a few others.

Mathew Ingram

Mark, as a journalist who works for an online newspaper site, I sympathize with your thoughts on this -- but I would just point out that while newspapers charge for their printed content, what people pay (as you probably know) doesn't actually pay for much of anything. Advertising pays for the vast majority of content in print -- why should online be any different?

Mark Potts

Matthew: Thanks for your note. I believe that the online model is different in so many other ways that we need to experiment with new revenue models, as well. And I'm not advocating subscription revenue trumping advertising—I'm just saying that in most cases, there's NO other revenue besides advertising. As I said, it perplexes me that there have been so few experiments in finding other sources of revenue, especially from subscriptions. I'll talk more about strategies in my next post, in a couple of days.

overburdened new media employee

The Times is voluminous. They are consistent at creating online content, as a subscriber I get a lot for my money. Medium and small market papers need to develop their sites with a tremendous amount of local content and make itself essential to the lives of their community. This has to happen to ever justify spending money to visit. As an employee at a medium sized newspaper we are understaffed and incapable of providing enough content for paid subscribers, the addition user-generated content is not enough to fill the gaping hole. Most papers need to invest before they should think about charging for their product.

Andy Vogel

Mark, as a Bears fan it only mildly insults me that you failed to mention PackerInsider by the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee as a well run paid site.

Like other newspaper sites, fully 90% of the subscribers are outside the state of Wisconsin because much of this content is freely available. When I was at the Journal Sentinel we worked hard to grow local subscribers through a variety of grassroots methods. We focused on user generated features like photos and a podcast of fan "rants and raves."

We did a good job of growing subscriptions, but the marketing spend didn't cost justify itself, and eventually the person in charge of marketing cut all funding.

I guess that's just another argument for seperate p&l's and physical seperation from the "core."

Robert Stewart

That congoo site's news channel is amazing. Why didnt I think of that?

Mary Specht

The most influential reason people expect online content for free is that paying takes too long. Stopping to fill out a dozen fields on a payment form is anti-thetical to the way people consume news online.

Today's technology makes payment cumbersome. Long-term (months) and short-term (days or individual articles) subscriptions will become commonplace when a universally-adopted, near-instantaneous payment system comes around.

I'm thinking of an EZ-Pass Express of e-commerce, a concept that should ring a bell with anyone who drives regularly through New Jersey.

Bill Burger


You've correct that quality journalism faces a serious business-model crisis. But with all due respect, I couldn't disagree more with your suggestion that subscriptions are even a partial answer to the problem. When a simple registration screen is enough to cause most people to abandon a promising link, just think what a barrier a paid subscription would be for all but a rarefied few. I'm one of those who live outside the 50-mile radius of Washington, and I follow plenty of blog links to the Wash Post and other sources from around the world. But would I continue on if asked to pay? With the exception of the WSJ and NYT, the answer is no, and I suspect that few people would. The 90 percent of the traffic the Post gets from outside its circulation area would evaporate and so would the ad revenue. Worse, the Post would no longer have a seat at the national dinner party conversation.

The nature of media is changing radically. This extraordinary video now making the rounds may be the most powerful statement I've seen in a long time on how different things are--and will be:

Bill Densmore


Thanks for sticking your neck out on this. The well-intentioned folks who manage news-industry websites are all incented to push advertising and they believe that precludes pay walls of any sort. They continue to believe they are in the advertising business, not the news business, and that their competitors are new-media websites. But the mass-market advertising business is a game of numbers, and they will never catch up to Google, Yahoo, MSN, MySpace et cet. in raw "circulation."

There are perhaps three ways journalism as we know it is going to be supported going forward:

1) Sponsors (read: advertising)
2) Donors (philanthropy or socially motivated ownership)
3) Users (subscription/per click)

So far, most of the web has explored only No. 1 -- Which is going to drive dvertising rates toward the floor -- nothing like what would be needed to support general-market journalism provided by the formerly de-facto, accidental, fortuitous, near monopolistic or oligarchic positions of many mass-circulation newspapers and broadcast networks.

The other two legs need to be explored. I feel a conflict getting out front pushing this view, because of my continuing non-operating ownership stake in Clickshare Service Corp., which provides a system for making it easy to charge for information across a network of affiliated websites, each of which maintains their unique customer and content relationships but each of which may share and exchange revenue from both advertising and information.

A a group might consider working on a paper -- sort of the next phase of Geneva Overholser's "Manifesto" -- a call for a new approach to ownership of the "convener" of news in a community. It is not going to be a newspaper -- centralized daily printing is going to become a niche product for rich people -- much like magazines. It is going to be a 24/7, platform-agnostic nerve center that finds, organizes, shares and makes sense of information from a vast array of paid, volunteer, independent and partisan sources -- and then serves it how you want it, when you want it.


It will be a service organization -- like a law or accounting firm -- and it will be paid accordingly. At first, it will be extremely difficult to convince people to pay for such a service. But as the years go by, it will be seen as an absolutely indispensable way to get through the day. People will become as reliant on their "newshare" as on their car, doctor, parent or colleague. Larger cities will have competing "newshares" offering this information valet service.


These newshares will compete largely on technical grounds -- who does the better sort, who finds the real gems, and who provides premium information at the right price bundle.


Advertising will be part of all this, but it will be an option -- if you are willing to receive advertising, the cost of your "newshare" will be less. "You will actually be PAID for you attention when you look at an ad, and that payment will be a credit to an account which you can then use to purchase premium information. An ebb and flow of info-currency, depending upon whether it is information you ***want*** or information someone ****wants you to have.****"

-- Bill Densmore, densmore@newshare.com

Bill Densmore

A quick aside: As I now read the replies above mine, I endorse Mary Specht's notion of an "E-ZPass" for information which doesn't require multiple log-ins or passwords, and Bruce Bartlett's notion of a day pass. These are the sorts of innovation required.

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