Is charging for content a sign of maturity or senility?

Print publishers are clearly moving once again in the direction of charging for content. More publishers are willing to stand up and say that content should no longer be free. And ome publishers are taking the half-assed measure of charging for “premium” content or archives.

Not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Plenty of publishers still stand by free content and free archives. Knight-Ridder is making money with free news. The San Francisco Chronicle still doesn’t charge for archives. As the online advertising market picks up and the paid content market stagnates, these companies are going to put some space between themselves and those who want to charge for news. I’ll have more to say soon about why charging for archives is dead wrong.

Peter Krasilovsky of Borrell Associates make the point that the Internet is a disruptive technology. He’s right, and every publisher who has read Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma knows it. Christensen tells us that disruptive technologies are about more than cost reduction.

Disruptors have entirely new cost structures. Online publishers have no unions; no capital tied up in real estate, vehicles, and printing presses; no demands from shareholders for 25% profit margins; and no per-reader delivery costs.

Disruptors don’t simply take market share. They create new markets. You can’t defeat a disruptor by bundling print with online, bring your print advertisers to the net, or using the Internet to serve your existing readers. The Net fragments and aggregates markets. Metro dailies are not only competing with national publishers, but with community and neighborhood micropublishers.

Disruptors change the way we think about the relationship between price and performance. Publishers may think that you get what you pay for with a free Weblog. But the time spent reading blogs comes out of somebody’s readership. Why are we seeing more publishers charging just as blogging becomes both a threat and an opportunity?

Christensen advises that companies under attack from disruptors have two options: create your own disruptor or buy one.

But whatever you do, don’t try to compete by using your core business as a base of operations. That’s a losing strategy, and that’s what’s behind the renewed drive to charge for content online.

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