Is Free News on The Internet Over?

The experiment is also ongoing at the FT. The paper is currently looking at ways to convince customers who are not interested in an annual subscription to pay for content.

Apple's online shop iTunes offers some inspiration. For 99 cents, users can buy individual songs, and a single password makes purchasing easy. Customers are not opposed to paying online, but they do object to complicated procedures, says Ridding. If a customer has to go through 10 steps to enter his credit card information, he is more likely to decide that the item may not be that important to him, after all.

So far publishers have lacked a similarly straightforward technology. This is a gap that entrepreneur Steven Brill and the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz, hope to close with an ambitious project.

Their New York firm Journalism Online has developed a payment platform that enables readers surfing the Web to use the same password to pay for content on various news sites. Last week the company founders reported that 506 newspapers and magazines were already participating in the project, which is slated to begin this fall.

'The Issue Now Is How and When'

Each publisher can decide whether it wants to charge readers per article or a monthly subscription. But an all-you-can-read flat rate for all participating newspapers is also a possibility. "We have put the question of whether publishers want paid content behind us. The issue now is the how and when," says Brill.

Murdoch has also turned his corporation into a laboratory, where a team has been established to investigate payment concepts for all the newspapers in his empire. "Paid content doesn't mean erecting a tall fence around every Web site and charging money to get in," says Gordon McLeod, president of The Wall Street Journal digital network, which has been part of Murdoch's domain for the past two years. Some sites, says McLeod, will be able to charge for a lot of content, while others will have to remain largely free of charge. He believes in what he calls a "freemium," or a mixture of free and premium content.

His paper has avoided the cardinal error of the Internet. Since 1997, the Wall Street Journal's Web site has charged for some things, particularly the kind of content that makes the paper unique: financial and technology reports. Subscribers have free access to all paid-content stories. The paper's 1 million online subscriptions generate roughly $100 million in annual revenues today.

After 2007, Murdoch made no secret of the fact that he was considering making the Journal's Web site completely free. But he was smart enough to abandon the idea. Instead, the paper will also begin charging small fees per article soon.

The experiments in New York and London haven't quite caught on in Germany yet, but for a positive reason: German print media are not in such dire straits as their American and British counterparts. In Great Britain, more than 50 smaller papers have gone under since last year, and in the United States even leading papers like the New York Times are faltering.

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