Content providers are no strangers to the free versus fee debate, but over the past few years some newcomers have entered into the fray. Third-party companies have started offering media passes, often allowing users to manage a variety of digital subscriptions in one place. While some options, such as R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co.'s Press+, have seen measured success, others-offered by big players in the digital media space-have failed.
Take Google One Pass for example. Even with a world-renowned brand backing the service that launched in February 2011, Google scrapped the media pass service just over a year later due to lack of interest. An April 20, 2012, blog post on the Google website explains, "We have so many opportunities in front of us that without hard choices we risk doing too much and not having the impact we strive for."
During the year that One Pass was active, only two publishers signed up for the service: Southeast Missourian and Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to Rick Thornton, vice president of audience and content development for Richmond Media Group, the Richmond Times only signed up for Google as a paywall test, using it as a paid option to retrieve pages from its Civil War archives, so the impact of the One Pass demise was minimal.
Jon K. Rust, publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications, says that there were several reasons they joined the program. "Our customers were comfortable going through a paid transaction system affiliated with Google," he explains. "But, in comparison to other third party platforms that we were reviewing, Google One Pass was appealing on the cost side." Google helped the Southeast Missourian transition, and the publisher has since developed an in-house paywall system.
But why did only two publishers sign up to use the One Pass system? Alan Mutter, a consultant specializing in corporate initiative and news media ventures involving journalism and technology, and author of the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, believes that publishers were distrustful of Google. "They were worried about Google knowing who their customers were and didn't know what Google was going to do with that information," he says.
"Google does a lot of things, but a lot of them it doesn't do that well," says Ken Doctor, media analyst at Newsonomics.com. "While their main business is a story for the ages, many of their other attempts at projects didn't get sufficient funding or skills to make them successful. I think, in part, the problem was that Google didn't understand how digital circulation works. From Google's point of view this was an ecommerce play-Google looking at the world from Google out, rather than from publisher out."
Doctor's explanation of Google's failure may also explain others' success. One only has to examine the motivation behind the development of Press+ to see that the company certainly isn't looking inward. "I was teaching journalism and increasingly feeling that I was luring students into a dead-end profession," says Steve Brill, co-founder and co-CEO of Press+. "Because, if you just give stuff away for free, you're not going to pay journalists." That's why Brill and co-founder Gordon Crovitz started Press+. "We've put the newsroom in the equation as part of the business again," Brill adds.
The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., is one of the nearly 500 Press+ clients. Steve Wagenlander, director of audience development, noticed Press+ when he was asked to speak at a Press+ user group gathering in October 2012. "One of the things that struck me as peculiar is that there's not an employee in the Press+ building over 25 years old other than the founders," says Wagenlander. "And when you say the word ‘subscription' to them, delivering a paper to their house never crosses their mind. That mindset separates them. They don't know anything different; they only think of digital revenue. Google has eight million things they're trying to do, but these people focus on one thing: selling digital content. I think it's that focus and that naivety of never having to rely on print content that makes them successful."
Though experts believe it's not currently as viable in the U.S., bundling online access for several media platforms seems to be the key element in the continued development of media passes in Europe. Another foreign media pass was made public in December 2012: Media ID. Partnering with several Flemish and French publications and broadcasters in Belgium, Media ID has an anticipated test period beginning in April, followed by a full scale launch in September 2013. Riding on the coattails of Piano Media, a media pass service that started in Slovenia in May 2011 and has since spread to Slovakia and Poland, Belgium's Media ID bundles all the partner publications under one service, for one fee to the reader. Revenue is divided based upon where a reader signs up for the Media ID service and the amount of time spent on each publisher's site.
Doctor believes that a bundle system could work in the U.S. on a regional or niche basis. "Bundles haven't worked, but they haven't been tested here either," he says. "Two years ago we said paywalls didn't work. The notion of a bundle is that it's an untidy digital world out there; let us bring it together and make some sense of it for you. I think it could click, but the consumer is not used to it as a buying model here."
Regardless of the method, be it bundling or a metered system determined on an individual basis like Press+ offers, paywalls in some form or another have become the latest way for publications to generate revenue. "The economics of professional journalism have been under an assault in the last decade," says Mutter. "What we're talking about here is stopping the bleeding. Even Newsweek has stopped printing-and what becomes of them, who knows--so if we could just stop the shrinking, that would be an improvement. I see this as trying to reverse the ongoing contraction of professional journalism by recovering ad revenue that is going away."