Money for nothing

Jul 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

What’s your favorite Web site worth to you?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself that same question. In recent weeks, some of my most cherished Internet destinations have either shut down (such as Daily Radar and or come dangerously close to extinction (such as Plastic; its parent company went belly-up).

Now, many of my remaining favorites — such as — are asking for money. What’s a Web loyalist like myself to do?

Pay up, I guess.

I’m talking about subscription fees — the latest trend sweeping the Internet. Sure, content is still king. But cash is queen. And guess who wears the pants in this royal family?

“So … are you going to pay it?” That’s the question Curt Guyette, MT’s news editor, recently asked me. We were talking about, the high-quality news-and-culture Web site both of us are famously addicted to.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “It’s kind of a lot of money.” He nods in quiet agreement. “How much?” he finally asks. “Thirty bucks a year,” I say. “But I think there’s a discount if you buy two years up front.”

I read Salon every day, so this is a serious issue. Rumors have been flying about for months. “They’re going to fold any day now,” one industry watcher told me at a conference last year.

More than 12 months later, it’s still going … barely. With no sugar-daddy partner — like Microsoft, which must keep its news destination breathing for prestige reasons — sites such as Salon have to make things work alone. “Like an indie record label,” notes one Salon page hawking the subscription service, “(We’re) adventurous, intelligent and eclectic.”

Actually, most of Salon is still free too. But $30 buys you a subscription to “Salon Premium” — a new service that includes expanded stories, columns and other content not otherwise available.

So you can still read Salon. Just don’t click on the daily “Bushed!” feature — the site’s often-hilarious roundup of the “mishaps of President George W. Bush and his administration.” Because if you do, you’ll see this frustrating message:

“Want to read more? This article is Salon Premium content and only available to Premium subscribers.” And of course, there’s also a conveniently placed sign-up link. Have your credit card ready, please.

Or not. For some reason, I’m hesitant to surrender my cash just to pay for stories on a Web site, even for a favorite destination such as Salon. And if Net diehards like me won’t fork over the cash, that’s not a good sign for Web sites counting on subscriber fees to save the day.

But I love Salon. Why am I so reluctant to pay?

At first, I thought it was my views on content distribution. You’ve heard it before from any Web geek: Information wants to be free. Power to the people. Or something like that.

But as I’ve mulled it over, I realize it’s something else entirely. Web sites should be able to give content away and make money too. If you think about it, many other popular media forms already do so.

In his weekly Washington Post column, editor Michael Kinsley recently made this excellent point: “Distributing the news for free on the Internet does not seem inherently more absurd than chopping down trees, hauling huge rolls of newsprint across continents, running vast presses and dispatching a fleet of trucks at the crack of dawn to get 25 cents for the same words and pictures on 27 cents’ worth of paper.”

That’s right. Chances are, the cost of merely printing your favorite newspaper is higher than the price you pay for it. Some newspapers are even free (you’re reading a free one now).

It’s no different with glossy magazines. Forget about paper costs. According to Kinsley, your annual subscription costs doesn’t even cover the cost of persuading you to subscribe. “For many magazines,” says Kinsley, “the average subscriber never pays back the cost of finding, signing and keeping him or her.”

See, we’re paying for distribution … not content. On the Web, I’ve already paid the distribution fee. I’ve bought the computer. I pay monthly for Internet access too. Why should I have to pay — again — for content?

It’s simple — advertisers aren’t buying online ads. And since the Web sector went bust, it’s gotten worse. In essence, sites such as are asking for handouts. Since it can’t find advertisers to make its business model work, it wants loyal readers like us to subsidize its efforts.

Once it gets enough subscribers, I assume, it will be able to win back the advertisers who abandoned it. But that’s a faulty premise. On the Web, you don’t need paid subscriptions to prove readership. All you need is traffic.

“One of our struggles as an industry is that we haven’t packaged our advertising story very well,” notes editor Merrill Brown in a recent interview. He’s right — advertisers should be very excited about Salon’s literate, upper-middle-class readership. Salon just needs to find better ways to sell those readers to Madison Avenue.

Until then, I’ve decided to send Salon some money just to keep it going. But I’m not going to call it a subscription fee.

It’s a charitable donation.

Adam Druckman wanders the Web for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]