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Paid Subscription Blogging, Part 2

  |  November 12, 2003   |  Comments

Will readers pay to read blogs? Can bloggers successfully charge subscription fees? Professional bloggers weigh in. Part two of a two-part series.

Will people pay to read a blog? Can bloggers successfully charge subscription fees? Can their publishing switch from free to fee?

I asked the opinions of several pioneers at commercializing blogs in part one of this series. Now, more bloggers, with more opinions.

Hylton Jolliffe, founder, editor, and publisher of Corante, a free group technology news blog, agrees with my conclusion in part one. "For a few individuals with strong existing reputations, deep domain expertise in narrow niches, and significant marketing muscle behind them, there's an opportunity to charge for access," he said. "That's obviously a lot of qualifiers.

"Blogs are contributing to the erosion of the paid newsletter business. There are an exploding number of people and companies giving information and analysis away as a marketing tool for themselves."

Jolliffe branched blogging into a consulting tool. "We work with individual companies to craft internal information services, including blogs, in which we track industry developments, competitive intelligence, etcetera."

Another paid subscription blog proponent is Steve Outing, senior editor of the Poynter Institute's free E-Media Tidbits, a group blog on online publishing (to which I contribute). "I absolutely believe there's a market for paid-subscription blogging," says Outing. "There are thousands of paid newsletters serving narrow niches. They've been publishing since way before the Internet."

"Where I see opportunity is for these paid sub-newsletter publishers to offer blog spin-offs -- perhaps even replace the traditional newsletter format with a daily updated blog that's worth paying for. 'Intelligence services' for narrow niche topics," Outing said.

"In this era when information moves so quickly, the $1,000-a-year weekly newsletter is an anachronism. If I had obscure industry information needs and was willing to pay $1,000 per year, I'd much rather pay for daily information than a weekly newsletter.

"There's no reason that the blog format can't be used for paid services. Consider Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security online news service, which is formatted as a blog and charges hundreds of dollars per year for a subscription. As the blog format gains more acceptance, we'll see a lot more like this," Outings said.

"Being able to charge is simply a matter of having information that's not available anywhere else, plus having an audience capable and willing to pay for it," he concluded.

A paid subscription blog optimist is Henry Copeland, CEO of Pressflex and founder of BlogAds. "I'm not skeptical about anything when it comes to blogs," he said. "While some folks argue that 'blogs make content infinite and therefore inevitably free,' I think quality writers or journalists will be able to extract some subscription revenues from loyal blog readers."

Although he thinks most blogs will stay free, Copleland bets as technology becomes more inexpensive and devices for online reading more ubiquitous, the combination will lower barriers to entry enough for professional writers to become their own, profitable publishers. As the prices readers will pay for content drop and established publishers (with higher production costs) can't slash costs quickly, professional bloggers will step in.

"We're all still looking for the right pricing point," Copeland cautioned. "If I currently spend $100 on all online and print subscriptions, I'm not going to scrap those and buy five $15 blog subscriptions. But I may buy 10 $3 subscriptions to supplement or replace some of my current [ones].

"Remember, we're talking about a potential audience of 200 million people in English, all only one click away. If I'm a writer who, in addition to my print gigs, sells 2,000 $3 subscriptions a year and gets $5,000 from advertisers, I'm going to be ecstatic."

Copeland noted professional bloggers will have to balance the commerce and the freedom, including the urge to put their best content online for free to attract new readers versus putting it behind walls to extract subscription fees. They need micropayment systems that make $2 to $4 subscriptions economically viable.

Nick Denton spent the past year trying to commercialize blogs. The former Financial Times Silicon Valley correspondent, Denton's no stranger to commercial Internet ventures. The chairman and a co-founder of Moreover.com and co-founder of First Tuesday has first-hand experience. Nowadays, he publishes the New York gossip blog Gawker (edited by Choire Sicha), gadget blog Gizmodo (edited by Pete Rojas), and the recently-launched porn blog, FleshBot.

The free blogs are primarily aimed at consumers. "I am intrigued by subscription-donation hybrids [for B2C blogs]," Denton said. "Like the shareware model for software. Or the way museums ask for a suggested donation, even when they're supposed to be free. If a user is poor, he or she can still visit a site for free and tell their friends. But those who can afford the charge, and have the PayPal account or familiarity with credit cards, are pushed to pay. That seems to capture some of the potential subscription revenue without crushing word of mouth."

Denton doesn't plan to use this donation mechanism to fund his own commercial blogs but suggests that some might consider using it.

Socio-political commentator Andrew Sullivan of AndrewSullivan.com and Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit successfully used the paid-donation business model. But they're rarified "A-List" bloggers, two of the few read by tens of thousands or more people per day.

My favorite blograising example is Christopher Allbritton's blog. The freelance reporter was stuck in Cizre, Turkey, shortly before the American invasion of Iraq. He needed $3,000 to pay smugglers to take him across the closed Turkish-Iraqi border so he could report independently about the conflict. Allbritton launched Back to Iraq and asked readers to donate. Within days, he received $8,000, more than enough to get deep into Iraq. During the war, 320 donors (of about 25,000 daily readers) contributed a total of $14,000, according to Harvard University's Nieman Foundation, which profiled Allbritton's reportorial and financial experiences.

Like Steve Outing, I believe prospects for paid subscription blogging will approximate those of newsletter publishing. Paid subscriptions for B2C content -- whether by a lone blogger or a legion of journalists -- will be difficult online, where all content competes for 600 million consumers. I don't foresee any reason why a truly informative B2B blog shouldn't be able to charge for its content. The questions, given Internet economics, are how low a subscription fee to charge and what transaction mode (subscription fee, donation, or micro-transaction) to use.

As Henry Copeland told me, "There are lots of challenges, but there's never been a better time to be a blogger."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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