Monday, November 23, 2009

Bing not likely to outbid Google for news

In the latest wild idea to save newspapers, the Financial Times is reporting that Microsoft would pay publishers to prevent Google from linking to their stories, so as to drive more traffic to its Bing search site.

The idea, which merits high marks for creativity, seems most unlikely to get off the ground. Here are the relevant facts:

:: Approximately half of the traffic to newspaper websites comes from search-engine referrals, according to Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive, the most authoritative researcher on the behavior of online news consumers.

:: Fully 71% of the searches on the web are handled by Google, while fewer than 7% of the searches are handled by Bing, according to the latest industry statistics.

:: If a newspaper were generating revenues as low as $1 per thousand for banner advertising on the traffic steered to it by search engines, then Microsoft would have to pay the paper more than $10 per thousand to make it worthwhile for the paper to forsake traffic from Google.

Now, ask yourself this:

:: Could Microsoft be that desperate? Perhaps.

:: Assuming Microsoft were that desperate, could newspaper traffic be all that valuable to Microsoft when so much other news traffic would remain widely and freely available at Google? I think not.

:: Would newspapers risk slipping further into irrelevance among readers and advertisers by denying their articles to 71% of the world’s search traffic? I hope not.

So, what’s it all about?

The threat of selling out to Microsoft is aimed at getting Google to pay for linking to newspaper stories, something that, for the most part, it does not do. (There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, such as the payment Google makes to the Associated Press and a few other international news agencies for using their content.)

The problem with this bargaining tactic is that it appears newspapers need Google more than Google needs them. Publishers are well within their rights to try to squeeze some money out of the search gorilla but they had best remember who’s running the jungle.

Carnage continued in Q3 newspaper sales

Contrary to disingenuous happy talk from industry leaders, the third quarter brought absolutely no relief to the relentless dive in newspaper advertising, as total sales fell $2.5 billion to bring the year-to-date decline to nearly $7.9 billion.

With three months to go in the worst year ever for newspapers, the drop in sales in the first three quarters of 2009 is roughly equal to the combined revenues for the last 12 months of Gannett and McClatchy Co. In other words, it’s as though two of the largest publicly owned publishers in the land just fell off the face of the earth.

Sales plunged deeply in every category in the third quarter, according to statistics posted last week by the Newspaper Association of America, the industry-funded trade group. “The broad consensus is that the worst has passed,” said NAA chief executive John Sturm in a statement to Bloomberg News accompanying the grim numbers.

Based on the excellent industry data provided by the NAA itself (which we will explore further in a moment), it is difficult to come to a remotely similar conclusion.

While there is no denying that advertising sales are suffering in part as a result of the worst economic calamity since the 1930s, the long-running plunge in print sales illustrated below demonstrates that newspaper sales were in trouble well before the economy collapsed.

Based on the trend, it would be decidedly unrealistic to believe that newspaper sales will return to anything close to their former strength when the economy rebounds, whenever that might be. Let's go to the numbers:

Continuing 14 straight quarters of mostly accelerating declines, total print advertising in the third period fell a bit less than 29% to $5.8 billion. Interactive advertising sales, which the industry once hoped would be its salvation, dropped nearly 17% in the third quarter to $623 million, marking the sixth quarter in a row of declines in this crucial category.

The only good news in the unremittingly ugly figures reported last week is that the rate of decay in the third quarter was “only” 28.95%, as compared with the all-time record sales plunge of 30.15% in the prior period. Here are the details of the third-quarter debacle:

:: Classified advertising led the declines, falling 37.9% from the comparable period in 2008 to $1.47 billion.

:: For the first time since 1995, national advertising sales dropped to less than $1 billion. They were $956 million, or 29.8% lower than a year ago.

:: Retail sales slid a bit less than 24% to just under $3.4 billion. They haven’t been this low since the first quarter of 1987, when they were $3.3 billion. Adjusting for inflation, the 1987 performance would be equivalent to $6.3 billion today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the classified categories, automotive and real estate advertising, two long-time pillars of the newspaper advertising model, each was down by 43% in the third quarter, compounding drastic declines in recent years.

Auto sales, which nearly hit $1 billion in the third quarter two years ago, were $321 million in the same period in 2009. Realty advertising, which topped $1 billion per quarter as recently as two years ago, declined to $358.6 million in the third quarter. It will take a long time for either vertical to return to its former strength, assuming they ever will.

Recruitment advertising, which surpassed $2 billion per quarter at the peak of the Internet bubble in 2000, all but dried up in the third quarter of this year, falling nearly 64.7% to a mere $175 million. Employment advertising is not simply at its lowest point in history, it is all but gone.

With major categories like employment, auto and real estate reduced to being shadows of their former selves, it is hard to see how anyone can say the worst is over.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Polls apart on charging for content

With the issue of charging for online content the hottest topic in publishing circles, polls are popping up everywhere purporting to divine consumer sentiment. But they unfortunately are all over the map.

Thus, the surveys are providing neither guidance nor comfort for publishers as they agonize over whether or how to charge for the valuable content they have been giving away for more than a decade.

On the question of whether consumers would purchase news, sentiment ranges from a high of 53% willing to pay in a poll conducted late in the summer for the American Press Institute to a low of 20% in a survey released this week by Forrester, the independent market-research firm. In a third study, also released this week, the Boston Consulting group found 48% of respondents would shell out for news.

On the question of how much the readers who are willing to pay would be willing to pay for content, the API study got an average of $4.64 per month and the Boston study got an average of $3 a month.

The Boston study, which was conducted internationally, determined that Americans and Australians are cheapskates when it comes to how much they would pay for the news. While the average in the U.S. and Australia was $3 per month, the averages for other countries came in higher: Italy, $7; Spain, $6; France, $5; Germany, $5; Finland, $4; Norway, $4, and United Kingdom, $4.

The price points indentified in the various studies are notably lower than the average $8.33 per month that Steven Brill discusses when he attempts to persuade publishers to adopt his Journalism Online payment system.

It looks like publishers trying to figure out what to do clearly have more figuring to do.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Health, wealth and sex sell best on web

Health, wealth and sex are what sell the best on pay sites on the web, says the author of perhaps the most comprehensive survey to date of interactive revenue strategies.

After systematically surveying 550 subscription and membership sites, Anne Holland, who is best know as the founder and former proprietor of the popular Marketing Sherpa website, reckons that American consumers will shell out nearly $15 billion this year to buy content on the web.

Holland conducted the survey to kick off her newest venture, Subscription Site Insider, which, naturally, will be a membership-supported service providing data and best practices to those operating paid websites – or who aspire to do so. The new report, which represents possibly the most ambitious effort to date to capture the state of play in pay, can be purchased here for $247.

Holland decided to scope out the emerging pay market as her next act after Marketing Sherpa, which she sold in 2006. She quickly identified the three areas that are the most productive for web publishers who want to charge for access to content via either subscription or membership fees.

“They are the usual ones,” she chuckled in a telephone interview. “Health, wealth and sex.”

Holland defines “health” sites as those that either entertain or contribute to the sense of well-being of their customers. She said this category, which includes sites like World of Warcraft, Ancestry.Com, Classmates.Com and Match.Com, will produce a collective $5.9 billion in sales in 2009.

Holland said the wealth category, which consists of sites that help people make or save money, will generate $5 billion in sales this year. And sex, of course, refers to the adult- entertainment sector, which Holland pegged as a $4 billion annual business.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of running pay sites, the survey found that a surprising 42% of business-to business (B2B) sites said they achieved profitability within six months of launch and that 40% of consumer-oriented (B2C) sites reported that they were profitable in the same period.

Only 9% of B2B and 3% of B2C sites said they waited two years or longer to achieve profitability, suggesting that most operators bow out quickly if they can’t see a path to profitability within a short period of time.

“Not every subscription site is profitable,” warned Holland in a report on her findings. “At less than $10,000 in initial investment (if you create your own content), the barrier to entry is low enough that some entrepreneurs get into the industry who are not capable of the precise and sustained effort required to make a profit. This means that every year dozens of sites are launched and then abandoned a few weeks or months later.”

Still, 17% of the sites covered by the survey said they were making in excess of $1 million in annual profits, and Holland said there’s a “happily prosperous ‘middle class’ of sites making profits in the solid six figures.”

As for how to build a subscriber-supported web business, Holland said 48% of sites recruit new subscribers by offering a free trial to those willing to furnish a credit-card number. She said 28% of sites allow free trial without a credit card for a period of time but that 24% of sites require consumers to begin paying on day one.

Holland said most evidence suggests that offering a free trial without taking a credit card “is a losing proposition,” adding: “Asking for a credit card upfront is good – and honest – business.”

Subscription or membership fees are only part of the revenue mix at most sites, the survey found.

Half of the sites supplemented subscription fees by selling additional published material, 43% offered consulting or coaching services, 39% booked income from alliances with affiliate marketers like Amazon, 32% carried network advertising and 32% sold ads directly. Other revenue streams included ticket sales, list rentals, software sales and classified ads.

In addition to developing the right sort of content and go-to-market strategy, the research suggests that the key to a healthy interactive venture is to build a matrix of revenues, rather than simply relying on monolithic advertising or subscription strategies.

“Of course you should have additional revenue streams,” agreed Holland. “In fact, you need them for optimal profits.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Newspaper epitaph: ‘Who else is doing it?’

A year ago, Alan Jacobson, a talented and indefatigably innovative newspaper designer, came up with an idea for a highly targeted, efficient-to-produce and effortlessly viral website that is exactly the sort of thing newspapers need to strengthen their online franchises.

After spending many frustrating months trying to interest publishers in his idea, he got a piece of advice from a friend. “Forget newspapers,” said the friend, who actually used a shorter and saltier F-word than “forget.”

After giving up on newspapers – you guessed it – traffic on Jacobson’s site is soaring and he is getting ready to pursue a multi-threaded revenue plan. His progress to date, as detailed below, suggests that he potentially can create a number of similar cost-effective and scalable sites to build community, traffic and revenues.

But there’s far greater significance to this story than any success Jacobson may achieve. His experience in dealing with publishers is a perfect example of what ails – perhaps fatally – the newspaper industry. And it is this:

Publishers can’t stand being the first to do anything innovative.

In the most perverse and consistent institutional character flaw I have witnessed in more than 35 years of covering and conducting all sorts of business, I have found that publishers are constitutionally unable to be the first movers on anything that might give them a competitive advantage.

This is completely opposite of the way every successful business operates. A successful business develops a unique product, service or selling proposition and then vigorously exploits it as hard and as fast as it can to get ahead, and stay ahead, of its competitors.

Imagine where Apple or Google would be today if every innovation had to sit on the shelf until a competitor first proved its value.

But innovation is a dirty word at newspapers. When confronted with a potentially game-changing idea, the first question publishers always ask is, “Who else is doing it?” That phrase could well stand as the industry’s epitaph.

The inability to think outside the box helped put the newspaper business into a crisis it may not be able to survive.

But guys like Alan Jacobson, who began his career as a newspaperman until he hung out his shingle in 1992 as Brass Tacks Design, is a member of that steadily shrinking fraternity of people who have an irrational affection for newspapers and can’t stop working on ways to save them.

Thinking a year ago about how to create an inexpensive, viral site to attract fresh ad revenues for newspapers, Jacobson hit on the idea of publishing a blogging platform for middle-school students that he named Tween Tribune.

The idea is pretty simple: Harvest a few interesting and age-appropriate stories each day from the Associated Press and encourage educators to use the stories to teach their students about reading, writing and critical thinking by posting comments on the site.

In addition to providing advertisers with what Jacobson calls a “clean, well lighted place” to reach the multibillion-dollar youth market, the site would pay an extra dividend for publishers. It would hook a certain number of young readers on the news and, in the best case, begin to build loyalty to each of the newspapers that Jacobson hoped to recruit as partners.

To make a long, painful and all-to-common story short, Jacobson turned up only one newspaper partner after more than half a year of pitching. When he stopped trying to work with publishers and began emailing teachers directly on Oct. 1 to tell them about his service, traffic at his site went from 25,000 page views a month to better than 25,000 views per day on some recent days.

Teachers report that their students get a kick out of reading and commenting on nutty stories like the woman who formerly had the longest fingernails in the world and serious ones like President Obama’s idea of shortening summer vacation.

And teachers are tickled to have found ways to fire up their students. “This is a great resource,” said educator Rita M. Driscoll in an email from the school district in Chesterfield County, VA. “I loved seeing the positive reactions, the engagement in reading and students so enthusiastic about writing.”

With students writing thousands of comments a week and teachers taking it on themselves to introduce other educators to the site, traffic appears to be climbing to the level that it will be possible to begin selling advertising, said Jacobson. Once the concept has been thoroughly proven, he also believes he may be able to charge school districts for access to premium features he plans for the service.

Jacobson has identified other verticals where he believes he can build communities to generate the same sort of response from adults – and the advertisers trying to reach them.

Even though Jacobson has decided to stop chasing newspaper publishers, he does have an answer to the question of who did it first.

It is the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times, where publisher J.H. Sanders said Tween Tribune enabled his 14,000-circulation paper to generate $18,000 a year in long-term sponsorship revenues in a matter of days from the likes of Shoney’s Restaurant, South Georgia Medical Center, Wilson Eye Center and Valdosta Technical School.

“By sponsoring this site, you are showing the community that you care about the schools and helping teachers find better ways to connect students with current events,” said Sanders in an email. “The teacher feedback has been great. The advertisers are happy with the way the site looks and how they are positioned.”

Tween Tribune is almost pure profit for the newspaper, because Jacobson built the site, edits the content he buys from the AP, handles hosting and manages customer service. The Valdosta paper, at its own option, contributes a few stories of its own.

While the revenue for this or any other niche site seldom will be enormous, every little bit adds up. If you accept the reality that narrowcasting is the future of interactive media, then Tween Tribune appears to be a good example of how this may be done.

So, publishers, it now appears to be safe to talk with Alan Jacobson — if he has time to take your call.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Ugly ethnic profiling tarred Ft. Hood coverage

The news media succumbed to ugly ethnic and religious profiling in their coverage of the shooting last week at Fort Hood. Shame on them.

Media executives ought to closely review their coverage of the Fort Hood massacre to develop sufficient organizational discipline to avoid spreading in the future the sort of inflammatory information they irresponsibly aired and published as the tragic event unfolded.

The ethnically tinged tenor and tone of the coverage emerged rapidly on cable news in the minutes after the shooting occurred on Thursday. The initial story line was this:

At least three suspected Islamic gunmen wearing stolen military uniforms infiltrated America’s largest Army base and killed or wounded dozens of people in a coordinated terrorist attack. One gunman was killed and two others were wounded and taken into custody.

This entirely inaccurate narrative (except for the location of the shooting and, unfortunately, the magnitude of the carnage) emerged as frenzied cable newsers struggled to fill the air with instant analysis of an event for which they had almost no authoritative information.

In fairness, the cable commentators were misled by inaccurate tidbits provided by ill-informed members of the Texas congressional delegation, including the flat-out assertion of one congressman that the incident was an act of terrorism. Things weren’t helped, either, by the fact that the official Army spokesman took hours to tell the media that the lone gunman, who he initially said was killed, actually was still alive.

In the absence of clear and coherent information about the attacks, the cable babble was re-tweeted widely for hours not only on Twitter but also by presumably responsible news organizations that, in the absence of anything else to say, simply turned on Twitter feeds at their websites.

Thus, an already alarming event was cast in a far more sinister light than it should have been.

The most distressing consequence of the misguided early coverage is that the shootings were portrayed as an act of organized Islamic terrorism.

This spin was en easy leap from the ethnicity and religion of the suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim whose parents emigrated from Palestine. But it was as inflammatory as it was dead wrong.

Even after the early misinformation was cleared up, the Islamic terror angle lived on into the weekend, and there probably are still many Americans who believe to this moment that the event indeed was a terror attack.

The Muslim terror angle didn’t stop on cable TV. It infected second- and third-day stories in newspapers that had plenty of time to reflect on the facts of the case and should have known better than to contribute to the misguided narrative.

For no other apparent reasons that the suspect’s religion and ethnicity, the thrust of this article in the New York Times on Saturday – three days after the event – was that “officials were not prepared to say whether the attack was the act of a lone and troubled man or connected to terrorist groups, foreign or domestic.”

It was not until Sunday – four days after the event – that the Times finally ran a piece saying “investigations have tentatively concluded that it was not part of a terror plot.”

It was completely appropriate for the Times and other media to inquire into whether the shooting was motivated by something other than the assailant’s private demons. But ask yourself this:

Would the Times or any other responsible news organizations have pursued the Islamic-terror story line this vigorously for so many days if the shooter had been a white Christian of English extraction who was born in the United States?

If I were a Muslim or an Arab, I would be incensed and frightened by this irresponsible coverage. I am neither a Muslim nor an Arab but I am incensed and frightened, too.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Chicago news co-op starts on a shoestring

While the editors of some notable non-profit news startups pull down hefty six-figure salaries, the founding editor of the Chicago News Cooperative says his pay will be a single digit for the next 12 months: $0.

That low, low introductory salary in part is testimony to the dedication of co-op founder James O’Shea, a lifelong Chicago newsman who had a brief tour as editor of the tempest-tossed Los Angeles Times before, as he put it, “I was generously given the opportunity to spend more time with my family.”

But O’Shea’s decision to work without pay for a year also reflects the fact that his ambitious news start-up is funded far more thinly than any of the high-profile news projects that have launched in recent months.

To date, O’Shea has raised a single $500,000 grant from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation to field a modest staff of “about 10” full-time reporters, plus freelancers, that he intends to deploy to cover city, county and state government and politics, as well as education and cultural affairs.

Although O’Shea is working for free, the rest of the staff – which includes such former Chicago Tribune stalwarts as business columnist David Greising and City Hall correspondent Dan Mihalopoulous – will get full-boat wages.

“I did not take a cut in pay to come here,” said Greising in an interview. “But I came because I would have eaten my heart out if I had stayed at the Tribune and this thing proved to be a success.”

Assuming a staff of 10 full timers costing an average of $135,000 apiece per year (counting benefits, equipment, office space and other overhead), a quick calculation suggests that $500k would cover operations for barely a third of a year. Throw in a decent freelance budget and the runway gets shorter.

The amount of money O’Shea has assembled to launch his project is dwarfed by the $30 million backing the Pro Publica non-profit investigative venture, the $5 million in seed funding committed to the nascent Bay Area News Project in San Francisco and the approximately $4 million raised by the newly launched Texas Tribune.

O’Shea, who not surprisingly spends the bulk of his time these days seeking additional support from individuals and foundations, is by far the worst paid among his peers. The editors of Pro Publica and the Texas Trib respectively make $570,000 and $315,000 per year; staff hasn’t been hired yet for the San Francisco project.

Unpaid labor is not unprecedented in the realm of journalism start-ups. Joel Kramer says neither he nor his wife has ever been paid for their full-time commitment to launching and running the 2-year-old MinnPost. Solo operators say they are toiling without pay from Seattle to North Carolina.

The Chicago project has more going for it than the initial grant and O’Shea’s pro bono services.

It has landed a contract to begin providing on Nov. 20 two pages of local content two days a week for the Chicago edition of the New York Times. O’Shea declined to detail terms of the NYT deal in a telephone interview, but he did say that an exclusivity provision in the contract forbids sharing the content produced for the Times with any other print publication in Chicago.

The news start-up, which O'Shea co-founded with book publisher Peter Osnos, also has established content-sharing relationships with two public broadcasters in the market, WTTW and WBEZ. And it will benefit from such things as free legal work and six months’ worth of free office space from Winston and Strawn, one of the city’s top law firms.

O’Shea is the first to agree that there’s lots more to be done to get to his target of $8 million to $10 million in non-profit funding. “I have enough money in the bank to produce content for the New York Times for a year” if the co-op sticks strictly to fulfilling that contract, he said.

But he needs more money to launch a hoped-for website and to broaden output beyond the articles produced for the Times. “I am closing in on enough money to get the website off the ground early next year,” he said. “But there is no big donor at this juncture. If you know anyone with $5 million, have them give me a call.”

O’Shea has a long-term plan to wean the project off philanthropic funding by recruiting at least 30,000 individuals to pay $2 per week to subscribe to the co-op. He hopes subscribers will be enticed by the novel social networks he plans to establish at the website. The networks would work like this:

Readers interested in particular subjects – ranging from education to the Mideast peace process – could organize discussion groups, forums and activities among themselves, said O’Shea.

“If they don’t like the coverage they are getting, they can write their own op-ed piece,” said O’Shea. “If they would like to see some reporting we are not providing, we would introduce them to editors and writers” who could produce pieces commissioned by the news community. “For each service,” said O’Shea, “we would change members a small fee.”

O’Shea was the managing editor of the Tribune before being tapped as one of a rapid succession of editors at the Los Angeles Times during a period of repeated and increasingly painful cost-cutting. When he declined to cut any deeper on his watch, he was forced out in early 2008.

That led to a period of rest and reflection at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, which in turn prompted O’Shea to join a number of like-minded individuals in Chicago over the summer to launch what became the CNC.

“This isn’t a job,” he said. “I was a journalist all my life and this is a continuation of what I was doing. I am trying to help out with what I know and with my passion for the business.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pay walls never may come at some papers

The resolve to charge for most interactive content is dissolving at some newspapers, potentially thwarting the plans of other publishers who still hope to erect pay walls on their sites.

Despite determined statements by several publishers earlier this year that they intended to make consumers pay for the valuable content newspapers have given away for more than a decade, the managers of some newspapers have come to realize that they can’t afford to lose the traffic that pay walls almost certainly would turn away.

So, the executives are scrapping plans to charge for most, if any, of their content. The latest thinking – which, of course, is far from unanimous across the industry – is illustrated in two fresh data points:

:: Goli Sheikholeslami, the general manager of WashingtonPost.Com, told a conference at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard last week that “not enough people are willing to pay” to make the sale of online content a viable business. If could get 5 million people to pay me to visit my site each month, I would be done,” she said. But Sheikholeslami said she has no hope of doing so.

:: Although Hearst Corp. attracted headlines in February when its top newspaper executive said he aimed to start charging for content, Mark Adkins, the president of the San Francisco Chronicle, told me last week that “we believe in being a free website” but plan to develop supplementary “premium content we will charge for.”

The Chronicle plan sounds a lot like the decision of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to continue to run a free site while charging $19.95 a year for access to premium coverage of the Minnesota Vikings. The Viking package emulates the long-running Packer Insider at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which grosses more than $1 million a year.

The hybrid free-plus-premium approach, which seems to be where the industry is heading in several large markets, may be one of the reasons the Gannett Co. recently urged its editors to get their “swagger back” by stepping up the production of unique and differentiated content.

Not all publishers are backing off pay walls.

Newsday recently began charging a stiff $5 per week for access to all but the first couple paragraphs of each story on its website. But Newsday is giving free web access to both its print subscribers and the Long Island residents who connect to the Internet via the broadband service sold by its parent, Cablevision Systems. Between the newspaper and the cable service, Newsday potentially will be available for free in three-quarters of the households in its market, an advantage not available to most publishers.

Pay walls were erected this summer in places like Harlingen, TX, and Schenectady, NY, suggesting that it may be possible for publishers in isolated markets to execute a strategy that retards the shrinkage of their print readership until the last generation of print-oriented readers dies off. This defensive, backwards-looking approach hardly seems to be a recipe for future success in the interactive marketplace.

The decision not to charge for most content at papers like the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle means that competing publications will have to think twice about pursuing aggressive pay strategies.

If the Washington Post continues to freely give away its political and international coverage, can the New York Times get away with charging for essentially the same content? If the Chronicle gives away its regional coverage, would competing papers in Oakland, Santa Rosa and San Jose dare to go the other way?

Apart from such competitive considerations, a growing number of newspapers are coming around to facing the harsh reality of the marketplace. This, more than anything else, may be influencing their reluctance to press ahead with aggressive pay strategies.

Once upon a time, publishers coulda woulda shoulda charged for their content. But the web today is awash in sites offering free access to world news, national news, sports news, business news, entertainment news and, increasingly, local news produced by a growing host of start-ups. Further, an entire generation of those under the age of 30 has been conditioned to expect the news to be free.

While publishers ought be able to collect premium prices for unique and valuable content, most of them have whacked their news organizations to such a point that they produce very little original, premium product. Without an investment in creating valuable content – which most publishers can’t comfortably fund – most efforts to charge for content will shrink audiences and advertising revenues at a time publishers can least afford to lose them.

Nearly half of the newspaper publishers in the United States stated in a recent poll that they are not convinced they should try to charge for content. A lack of resolve among not just newspapers but also publishers across many media almost certainly would undercut the efforts of the organizations that did attempt to implement a pay strategy.

To be sure, some publishers continue to be intrigued by pay walls.

Steven Brill, the chief executive of Journalism Online, said in an email on Friday that inquires are brisk from publishers interested in evaluating the pay service he plans to deploy.

“You are misinformed about folks being less inclined” to charge for content, said Brill, who intends to begin beta testing his pay system within eight weeks at selected publications. “We are fielding calls from, and doing meetings with, publishers (blogs, online-only websites, newspapers, magazines, for-profits and non-profits) every day from here and overseas.”

The question they ask, said Brill, is not “if” but “how” to charge for content.

But the biggest question for Brill is how many of his prospects actually will elect to move forward. Given the challenges described above, wanting to charge for content may be a long way from actually being brave enough to do so.