I am working on a white paper that describes how
subscription-based information publishers have responded to the Internet, and
what the future is likely to hold. And guess what (spoiler alert):
subscription-based information publishers charged for their content in the
past, charge for it now, and will charge for it in the future. So why is there
so much angst about charging for content online?

Consider all the ink and pixels that have been expended
discussing the New York Times and its new paywall. The New York Times provides
original, timely and valuable reporting on important topics. Why should it give
that information away for free? Charge for it (it was never free in print) and
be done with it. But, of course, it's more complicated than that.

For the many big media companies that put previously paid
content online for free in the early, innocent days of the web, trying to
charge now is akin to getting the genie back in the bottle. These companies are
now dependent on online advertising, which only generates real money if you
have huge traffic to your site. And these media companies get that traffic by
piling on even more free online content. Putting up a paywall means fewer
eyeballs, meaning less advertising revenue, coupled with great uncertainty as
to how many people will actually pay for online access.

But beyond the revenue aspect of paywalls, there is another
less-discussed issue lurking: almost as much as losing revenue, these media
outlets risk losing their influence. I read the New York Times because it is
influential; the stories it reports drive the national debate. What makes the
New York Times influential is that a lot of people read it. Damage that dynamic
and the publication quickly spirals into irrelevancy. That's why, whenever a
big media outlet breaks a story, it can't give it away fast enough. When
Rolling Stone published its expensively-produced take-down of Goldman Sachs,
for example, it didn't hold the story behind a paywall for the benefit of its
paid subscribers. Instead, it put the author on a media tour to discuss every
aspect of the article, while posting the full-text of the article on its
website for free. Rolling Stone wants paid subscribers, but it needs visibility
and influence to stay relevant and viable. This is a tough, possibly unwinnable
set of circumstances.

Interestingly and thankfully, subscription information
products function differently. In the majority of cases, they aren't chasing
the mass market, but rather a specific niche market. Often, they are the sole
source of information on a specific topic. Most subscription-based products
never carried much if any advertising, so audience size was never a
consideration. Perhaps most importantly, while many subscription information
products are influential, few actually seek to be influential.

Subscription information publishers may have limited
opportunity because of relatively small markets, but in this case, what limits
also protects. That's why they've ridden peacefully through so much of the
turmoil wrought by the Internet: there is simply far less pressure on their
business model.