Pay to Play

The usual cries of anguish have gone up over Microsoft’s plan to start charging for services on MSN.com.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth are based on some false assumptions. Microsoft is not going to charge for basic access. Yahoo is not necessarily going to follow suit. This does not mean the end of the “free Internet.”

Instead, Microsoft is going to create a bunch of “premium services” (like spam filtering for Hotmail) for which it will charge a monthly fee. These are not services that are available now, and you don’t have to buy them.

Microsoft has already learned some powerful lessons in the area of charging for service. Slate, for instance, spent many months as a paid service. Its user base fell, and its influence on the national agenda fell as well. Since a political paper is all about influence (they never make money, as Hachette Filipacchi finally learned when it closed George), charging more than the cost of getting such a paper to you is Clueless.

Charging for most content is Clueless. The money you pay for Time or Newsweek doesn’t go to the writers, but to the circulation department. The writers are paid from the same source as a free Web site’s writers: from the ads.

Business publications require registration as payment. You have to prove, by filling out a form, that you’re a vital part of the industry that publisher is trying to reach. If you are, the publisher’s ads will be “efficient,” reaching all your industry’s “decision makers.” If you’re not, it doesn’t matter how much you offer to pay, you’re not worth the publisher’s trouble.

But, again, this doesn’t mean a business Web site should only be available to the “right” people. The registration process pays only for the cost of getting the paper to you. Although there is something to be said for offering a “premium tier” of services that are available only to industry players. Ads placed in those areas would be more efficient. There would be no “wasted” circulation.

Defining and creating “premium” tiers is a tricky business. You shouldn’t define as paid something people are now getting for free — that will cause resentment. But you shouldn’t charge (money or data) for something that’s not truly worthwhile, either.

This is another one of those cases where the virtual world can learn from the world where paper, ink, and printing all cost money. In the business press, directories are valuable, databases are valuable, and “face time” with industry leaders is very valuable indeed. In the consumer space, events are valuable, books are valuable, and any popular site that’s not selling T-shirts, hats, and funny bumper stickers is just leaving money on the table.

But even as more clued-in Web sites define and create enhanced, premium tiers of service, don’t listen to the moaning about the “end of the free Web.” All quality journalism programs include classes in both the business and editorial side of the profession. The stories just prove that many journalists, like many doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, didn’t get straight A’s.

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