Editor's Note - Content's Free Ride Is Over. Almost.


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Content providers on the Web have lately been carrying their load, and then some. The promise of a business that offers products for free, supported solely by ad revenue, is rapidly breaking. It's a classic tech tragedy, played out and closely monitored by the media, who have their own stake in the same game.

A perfect example is Salon, which recently announced its plans to institute a fee-based plan to raise more revenue. The process brings up an interesting point: all the cards have to be laid on the table. There's no sneaking in tricky revenue schemes in this situation. If you've been offering something for free, you can't suddenly drop charges on your customers. Salon editor David Talbot posted a letter to readers explaining the new subscription plan. Called Salon Premium, the yearly subscription carries a $30 fee and includes as-yet-unnamed "bonus" features available only to subscribers-all offered in an ad-free environment. Salon has been carrying its customers on its back since inception, and has paid the price. Ad revenue plummeted, and the company has been cutting its budget by laying off staffers and "asking" others to take salary reductions.

Talbot's frank appeal to his customers is interesting because he's forced into a situation where he needs to change consumer attitudes. There's always been free content on the Web, and while some have loudly championed its right to freedom and others have patiently tried to point out that it's not all that great anyway, some of it is actually high quality, which set a painful standard. Consumers have either grown to expect Web content to be free or they have found ways to make it free-copyright, royalties, and creator effort be damned. Now vendors, especially ones like Salon, are faced with a truly wicked dilemma: How can they turn a mass of gimme-gimme Web consumers around and convince them to break out their wallets? And this is after the vendor has somehow figured out how to redefine "premium" content when, as far as they're concerned, that's what they've already been giving away.

The solution might be to set it up, sit back, and wait it out. For severely cash-strapped companies with only a few months' budget left, this might not be so easy. But I think we're arriving at a turning point in consumer behavior. The bubble has popped. This is not just Salon's problem, content providers everywhere must be sweating out some consideration of a fee-based plan. Consumers will eventually come around to the other side of the equation and realize that in most cases, the free ride is over. More importantly, they'll understand why some products must now carry a fee. Talbot has already subtlely-or perhaps desperately- tapped into the sentimental side of the consumer psyche by pointing out that if Salon readers choose to subscribe to the premium plan, they'll also be "contributing to Salon's success." Maybe that's part of the bonus-if you participate in Salon's success by paying for it, you'll gain backdoor entré into the tail end of a burnt-out revolution.

If enough of the free content bastions "succumb" to revenue models that are directly attached to product rather than advertising, consumer behavior will follow along in kind. I don't think we can simply wait for the economy to bounce back and then assume that ad revenue models will be back in the limelight. It doesn't have to be feast or famine. I think a subscription plan like Salon's can and should work. It can work because it's sensible and it should work because no one should now expect an operation like Salon's to continue to operate free of charge.

As an interesting aside, the database aggregators, who have been charging for content for decades and who have been plagued by the free content spector since the Web went mainstream, must be snickering quietly to themselves. A subscription doesn't have to be an impediment; quality content costs money to produce-always has, always will. As Talbot concludes in his letter to readers, "As we all know by now, the Web didn't rewrite all the rules. A free press has its costs."