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The Only Way I Would Pay for Online Content January 28, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I’ve spent the last 20 or so years of my life in and out of technology publishing.  I don’t really care about the business of publishing, but I live for communicating technical concepts at a level that I think my audience wants and appreciates.  Fifteen years after giving up my tenure-track professorship, I still miss teaching, and I glom onto opportunities to do live presentations and webcasts, or to communicate to an audience in some way.

You have almost certainly come to the realization that the publishing business in general is in big trouble.  For the most part, publishing has been supported by advertising, either wholly (in the case of controlled circulation publications) or in very large part (usually around 80 percent in the case of paid circulation).

The Web put this business model at peril.  Online advertising rates are significantly below what was typically the case for print publications, and except in rare cases no longer pay the costs involved in publishing, even online publishing.

The response by publishing leadership has been to devalue content, even though content is the entire purpose behind this business.  In my first foray into tech publishing, in 1988, virtually all of the editors and writers were originally trained as software developers or engineers, and were paid roughly comparable salaries.

Today, your average technical editor and technology writer is more likely to be a recent English Lit graduate who needed the job and hopes to leverage it into a real writing job that pays the rent someday.  I have nothing against such a person (there but for the grace of God go I), but it talks to both the lack of real information in the technology press today, and the inability to pay career technical salaries for information that is likely worth that princely sum.

Yet publishing leadership seems bound and determined to continue looking to advertising, and more lately paywalls, to keep the business viable.  Yet no one seems to believe that either advertising or a paywall is the savior for publishing.

I call bullshit on this poker hand.  This approach, or lack of approach, shows an incredible lack of imagination on adapting to a change in the business environment.

I have thus far refrained from making any suggestions on how to monetize content or create a new business model, because I have never been paid to be in such a leadership role.  And I’m not a person with a deep understanding of the business.  Besides, I admit that it is much easier to toss out possible remedies than to actually implement them.  But perhaps that’s what is needed here – a dose of reality to jump-start some real innovation here.

I will pay for content.  Really.  I still pay for one of the most expensive subscriptions of a mass circulation paper – the Wall Street Journal (well, the renewal is sitting on my desk right now).  I think most people will pay at least something for content they read on a regular basis.

But I won’t pay if I’m nickel and dimed by a dozen different web sites on a monthly basis.  Give me one, only one, payment mechanism, and let me choose half a dozen or so web sites of my own choosing to spend it on, and I will do so.  I will not, repeat not, go through a three dollar payment process for each of those half a dozen sites.

Make it convenient.  I recall ten years ago, attempting to change addresses on several print subscriptions.  For one publication, I was asked if I had any other subscriptions from that publisher.  How the hell was I supposed to know who published the magazines?  Yet when I called that publisher yet again (I won’t mention any names, but its initials are Time Warner) to change the address of another magazine, I was chided for having to disturb their “customer service” people twice in the same day.

I repeat – make it convenient, and I’ll pay.  I despair that this will ever happen, but I beg the all publishers to create and support a single payer that allows me ready access to all of their content.  Let me choose, and I’ll pay.  But I know you never will.

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