Everybody's talking about thinking about charging for content

The evidence continues to pile up that this will be the year newspapers start charging you to access their digital content. The latest news: Journalism Online, the e-commerce start-up created to help publishers monetize their websites, now says that more than 1,000 publications, including both print-based and digital-only titles, have signed on as affiliates. "There's a remarkable consensus among publishers that, if they do their jobs right, they can generate subscription revenues from roughly the 10 percent most engaged online users," Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and one of Journalism Online's co-founders, told me recently.

But scratch a little deeper and it becomes clear that publishers, while deeply curious about the idea of charging consumers for digital access, are also deeply ambivalent. For starters, those 1,000-plus Journalism Online affiliates haven't signed binding contracts yet, just "letters of intent," which, as Staci Kramer recently pointed out, don't obligate signatories to anything more than information-sharing.

Then there are the results of a new survey conducted by the American Press Institute, which polled publishers on their views on paid access models. Their answers show there's still a sizable gulf between intention and action: While 58 percent of respondents say they're "considering" switching from all-free to paid models, fewer than a quarter say they plan to do so this year, while 49 percent haven't yet settled on a time frame.

And when asked what pricing strategies they expect to adopt, the most popular answer, given by 38 percent of respondents, was "Free homepage with headlines and access to story summaries with full text of stories behind a paid wall requiring a monthly subscription." That's a remarkably unsophisticated approach, more akin to the clumsy first attempts at paid access publishers were making 10 years ago than to the flexible, highly-customizable system Journalism Online is touting.

And some major papers, including The Washington Post and the New York Daily News, aren't committing to anything whatsoever, sitting on the sidelines and waiting to see how their competitors paid-access efforts fare before mounting their own.

This timidity may actually prove the wisest course, says newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor of the consultancy Outsell Inc. Doctor thinks initiatives like Journalism Online "will create some revenue, but it's not turnaround money." That's largely because very few U.S. newspapers are generating the kind of unique, high-value information that readers will feel they need to have and can't get anywhere else. The smarter course for publishers, says Doctor, is to focus on increasing their share of the online ad revenue pie, which is bound to resume growing before long.

But Financial Times CEO John Ridding, whose paper is one of the few that's had significant success charging for its web content, predicts that publications that don't figure out a way to get consumers to pay for the news they read online aren't going to survive. "This is not a luxury -- it's kind of a necessity," he says. "There have to be areas where they can bring pricing and charging to bear. After all, this is a creative industry. It's a case where necessity is going to have to be the mother of invention."

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