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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Moving from free to fee must respect audiences

First off, sorry for the posting delay. I got the easy end of the having-a-baby bargain, but it has still put me incredibly behind. Greta’s adjusting to life as a Meyer well, even if she isn’t sleeping much at night. My wife has taken the brunt of staying up, so I can’t complain. I still can’t figure out why I never have any time anymore. Must be the other three kidlets.

Adding a fourth mouth to the family has made me think about finances, and I’ve noticed in the last two weeks that four major online players – Pandora, YouTube, Hulu, the New York Times, and UStream – have either announced plans to or been rumored to start charging for content. I’ve always been an advocate for free information. It fulfills the democratic mission of the news better and includes more people in the deliberative and educational process. Free, open-source information created the Internet as we know it.

However, I’m a realist. I know we need to find a way to make the news pay for itself, and I think all four of these announced or rumored business models make progress. What they all have in common is they are trying to strike a middle ground between paid and free. This quote from the Hulu rumors sums it up well:

The rumored offering is said to be the result of ongoing discussions around introducing fees for a service that would “strike a balance between what people expect to watch free online and what they would be willing to pay for.”

None of the sites are ever going to make any money by putting all of their behind a paywall. However, answering whether the proposed fee structures strike that balance is a different matter all together, and I think some of the sites are responding more successfully than others.

First, the Times is missing the point. If you are going to offer free and paid content, there had better be a clear line of demarcation. But the Times doesn’t make one at all. The paper’s editors are simply cutting readers off at an arbitrary 40 stories. I know the Times was burned earlier by TimeSelect, which put their most popular columnists behind a paywall, but it doesn’t make sense to lump briefs and entertainment packages with investigative reports and interactive features. I think a better plan for the Times is something I proposed earlier. Create a credit system. You get 40 free a month and can buy more 40 more for $10. All stories are worth a certain number of points. Even as I write that I think it’s overly complicated, but the solution isn’t as simple as picking a number out of a hat.

Pandora does a better job, even if it doesn’t distinguish between different types of music. The plan, announced last summer actually, would charge users $1 if they listen to more than 40 hours of Internet Radio. Like a lot of Pandora listeners, I’m well over the 40 hour monthly limit, but I like Pandora, and I’ll gladly pay $1 a month for it. I know it seems like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, and I probably am. I’m having a hard time deciding why I’d pay for Pandora and not the Times. Am I that shallow?

The Hulu rumors, however, made the answer more apparent. Hulu is proposing a similar tier structure. The free/paid balance happens when you want to a watch a story from the archives. The site offers only the last five episodes. This seems like it would make sense. I’d be willing to pay for this “value-added” service. However, I think this is a huge mistake with the rumored always-on-Internet Apple Tablet about to be announced Wednesday. I could seriously see replacing my home TV with a tablet if I could watch Hulu all the time. Second, and here’s the connection to the Times, I can get free TV from a host of other sites in more convenient forms. The Times has the same problem for me. I love the paper, but most of the stories I read their I can get elsewhere. Yes, I can get Internet radio from sites other than Pandora, but I like their service. I’ve already build my playlists. That’s worth a buck for me.

YouTube and UStream take the value-added component to the next level. Both sites have said they will start charging for new services, YouTube for video rentals, UStream for exclusive concerts. I don’t think I’d use either service a lot, but I’d be willing to pay if I did because I get to choose. I don’t feel forced after using the same service for free.

It’s a tough situation. Many Internet scholars that I respect say the Internet needs more rules and the second decade of the 2000s is the time to do it. Grudgingly, I agree, but the best rules will be those that respect the audience and the history of the medium. Paying for loyalty or convenience fits. Charging for using something too much doesn’t.

PhotoCredit: Another picture of my new daughter because she’s cute, it’s kind of related (at least to my opening) and a similar pic drove traffic to my blog better than anything else so far. Plus it’s a historic photo for the Meyer clan. Greta’s our first child to have hair and take a pacifier!

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