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People will not pay for quality of information

… claimed Bill Grueskin, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online, addressing 250 delegates from the online publishing industry at the AOP conference on Friday 7 October.

“A bad book costs as much as a good book,” he explained; “But they will pay for quality of source. The reliability of source makes value predictable. WSJ writes about a topic that is directly related to people’s livelihoods, which makes this easier.”

His keynote presentation on the challenges facing online publishers focused on the predicament that online advertising revenue for most media companies is still very small compared to that of offline parent companies: “We’re looking at a 10-15 year period before the two are comparable.”, the largest paid subscription news site on the web, has three-quarters of a million paid subscribers. Less than half of them also have a subscription to the paper version (paying $45 compared to the online-only subscribers who pay $99). The Journal has been consistent in its approach to paid-for content online. Grueskin said that they had never seriously considered moving to a free site, despite being seen alternately as geniuses and fools, depending on the advertising market.

He quoted Stewart Brand, writing some 20 years ago in his book The Media Lab: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive.” The observation sums up the tension between the value of information (to the recipient), versus the cheapness of distribution of that information.

According the Grueskin, the only way to introduce paid content to a website is to offer a product that is so valuable, so unique, that people are passionate about it and can’t find it elsewhere.

However, he cautioned publishers against introducing a paid-for model to services that have previously been free. He cited the example of The New York Times and its personalised News Tracker email alert service, which went from a free service with half a million users to a subscription service with just 20,000, falling even further to 15,000 – a drop of 97 per cent.

Grueskin concluded, in the words of The Godfather’s Don Corleone, “This is the life we have chosen”, warning: “Our predecessors ten years ago locked us into business models that it is almost impossible to change.”

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