The Net Plays ‘Reading for Dollars’

If you blinked last month, you might have missed a small item in the news about venerable entertainment trade publication “Variety.” The company’s Web site, Variety.com has started charging users for content.

Surprised? Why? Because suddenly words are not free on the Internet any longer? Get used to it.

Variety.com wants US$59 a year or $12.95 for a single month. A day rate of $2.95 is also available. Personally, I haven’t missed Army Archerd’s column in about 20 years. Since I believe he is worth it, sign me up to pay for Variety.com.

You may think I’m being taken. I think it’s a fair deal.

Reality is finally getting a foothold on the Internet. Words are pricey. Most people probably don’t know what people like me earn for spouting off and saying my piece, but we do earn a comfortable living. It’s an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and someone must provide the money.

The question now is whether Internet users can or will adjust to information bearing a price tag.

Read All About It

For several years, most of us have assumed all the words on the Internet were free for the taking. But since when is the product I produce any less valuable to consumers than books, outdoor grills and clothing? Consumers have been paying for those and most other products online for quite some time now.

It takes me two to three hours to produce this column. No one has ever suggested I should not be compensated. The question becomes: where should the compensation come from, and how willing is the average consumer to ante up?

That depends on what kind of return the reader gets for his money.

Money for Something

Consider ConsumerReports.org, for example. The company reportedly had a US$5 million profit last year. Readers pay a subscription fee of $24 a year, and the site has no advertising.

Why is it working? Because users trust the publication and they want and need the product information. Moreover, the target audience members generally have $24 a year to spare.

Still, if online content is to become the subject of commercial transactions — after consumers have long enjoyed most of it for free — some type of added value will have to be offered.

Paying For Pop Culture

While Consumer Reports, with its well-defined focus and universal consumer appeal, might thrive online, what about People magazine or The New York Times?

It might be tough to find a contingent of readers willing to pay People.com for the privilege of looking at photo of Madonna or reading a brief item about the latest trials of Anna Nicole Smith.

As for the Times, the buzz is that this spring’s new pay-to-play online version will be expanded from what is currently available for free. However, those who regularly read the already robust online version might wonder why expanded content is necessary. The beleaguered online Times is apparently looking for a financial lifeboat.

Penny For Your Thoughts

The trouble is that, until now, most of us have retained a divided image of the Internet. On the one hand, we believe that we are entitled to words and information for free. On the other hand, we see Kmart and its online partner BlueLight.com as fraternal twins, and we only go there if we plan to buy the merchandise they sell.

A recent poll by the Magazine Publishers of America found that only 9 percent of Internet users have paid to subscribe to an online magazine. Further, only 2 percent have ever paid for other online content. Indeed, 89 percent of the respondents said they have never paid for either.

Another poll, by John Zogby International, found that 67 percent of those surveyed have Internet access, and 42 percent use it to read an out-of-town newspaper, while 65 percent use it to learn about health-related topics.

We’re reading and using online content in droves, but we expect it to be free. However, with the disappearance of venture capital and IPOs, that expectation is rather unrealistic.

What Price Knowledge?

If the electronic commerce industry made a single mistake, it may have been to offer all of the valuable information on the Internet without charge from the beginning.

Even now, in the height of the information age, it’s tough to convince the readership that the latest information about new drugs for catastrophic illnesses is worth as much as the latest Dave Matthews CD.

Those who have the most power in our culture now are also those with the greatest access to information. If that access is not worth a few dollars each month, it may be time for us to re-examine our priorities.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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