Where’s the percentage?

As Posnanski continues his quest to figure out how newspapers will work in the future, Jay at Fack Youk wonders how blogs are going to work. After several very worthwhile paragraphs about what a person’s bookshelf says about them and the arguable irrelevance of books when you’re blogging your butt off every day, Jay asks a question all of us who do this to ourselves ask from time to time:

What if blogs charged for their RSS feeds? It would be worth $1 a month to me to not have to go to a site and check for updates. I constantly hear people talking about the untapped taxable resource that marijuana represents, but it’s not like the alcohol industry is dying out. With the foundation of the print media crumbling under our feet, I don’t hear nearly enough people proposing ways to monetize the amazing amount of content being written out there on the Long Tail.

I’ll put my money where my mouth is. Who wants my dollar per month? Craig, I’ve already told you I’d pay to read ShysterBall. River Ave. Blues, ditto. I would certainly have to pare down on the number of feeds I subscribe to, but the money those people would make from the subscription fees would make their content better. The best bloggers could make a living from writing and not have to work around a full-time job like many currently do.

Following that are several more good paragraphs about what’s wrong with advertising and why cable TV is eating broadcast’s lunch.

There’s a lot of good stuff in there and I just wish I was smart enough to have some intelligent responses. In the meantime, I keep coming back to the idea that if I had anything approaching a good guess what the reader attrition rate would be if I started to charge for it, I’d consider it. But I really don’t, and until then — since I’m a pessimist — I fear that charging for content would lead to me getting a solid income stream of, like, $500 a month with everyone else abandoning me for freer content. And really, that would be the worst of both worlds: not enough money to live on, not enough eyes to feel like I’m contributing to the greater baseball conversation out there.

Ultimately, it’ll sort itself out. The key, I think, is for guys like me and Jay and Jason and Mark and Ron and Lar and everyone else plugging away at this thing to just hang on and keep plugging until it does.

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  1. YankeesfanLen said...

    I don’t know if this is analogous or not, but think of the expense magazines go to in keeping their customers.  More subscvribers=better advertising rate, so they throw things at you to keep the numbers up.
    And, these are “broad” specialties: Sports Illustrated covers ALL sports, and when things are slow, throw in swimsuits. Photography needs to promote the next big thing- 24 megapixels,etc.  Even The New Yorker is at 15% of cover price, and they all offer a comprehensive website that usually adds content.
    Advertising prizes “eyes” and retention of them is a major challenge.

  2. Jay said...

    Craig, thanks for the link.

    If this does ever happen, I think it has to start from the top down. Your move, Andrew Sullivan.

    I really think he could get away with charging. He’s ridiculously prolific and has a readership that could withstand even the higher estimates of an attrition rate. He might even want to charge $5 because I think the inital move to pay-for-content would do most of the damage, as opposed to the difference between $1 & $5 a month.

    It could establish a precedent and create a model for those who know that advertising might pay the bills, but you are really going around your ass to get to your elbow.

  3. Craig Calcaterra said...

    The problem with the Sullivan model, Jay, is that he’s a salaried employee of the Atlantic and thus has no incentive whatsoever to risk going pay-for-content.  And in all hoesty, more than any other blogger, Sullivan is the guy I’ve modeled myself after (e.g. post frequency; the notion of always trying to add something even when merely linking; the notion of developing a singular voice over the course of thousands of posts rather than trying to always shoot the wad in a single post, etc.).

    Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I almost think it would be a better course for a blogger to try and get scooped up in their entirety and placed in a magazine or newspaper’s website like him rather than try to figure out how to advertize or charge their way into full-time blogging. At least there are a few examples of that being successful.

    Of course, that also brings us back to the whole future of print media thing, so maybe it’s all just circular.

  4. lar said...

    It’s definitely an interesting question, and one that I can’t even pretend to have an answer for. If I did, the hours I spend each week on wezen-ball would be a little more lucrative, I tell you (not that I’m complaining too much… if I wasn’t enjoying writing the blog, then I wouldn’t be doing it)

    The internet is so weird and fickle and hypocritical sometimes. Years ago, it seemed impossible that people would pay for music. But then iTunes showed up, and now people are more than happy to shell out $0.99 per song (which, really, is a lot more than it needs to be, considering how easy the distribution channel is). So now people can waste a buck multiple times a week on things like 99 Luftballoons or the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Hicks or whoever, but they can’t spend $2/month to encourage their favorite authors to keep writing. And it’s even worse when you consider the prices people are playing for tv shows on iTunes.

    If I want to catch up on BSG, I have to spend like $3/episode or $45/season to watch it on iTunes. And millions of people do that (and then go out and spend $50 for the dvds) but, again, they can’t spend $2/month on their favorite blogs.

    I’m not saying I’m the perfect netizen, though. I just started using iTunes a couple of months ago, and have only bought a few songs from them. Mostly, my music money goes to Amazon and their “Deal of the Day” (a whole Jackson Browne cd for $1.99? new U2 for $3.99? Beastie Boys’ License to Ill for $1.99? sounds good to me). But when it comes to pay sites, I’m not great. I pay Bill James $3/month for his stuff, which is worth it. But I don’t pay for ESPN’s insider, even though I desperately want to read some of their articles on occassion. I can’t even really think of other sites I pay for. I did contribute to Dave Pinto’s pledge drive at BaseballMusings, but this was the first year I did. Same with my BaseballReference sponsorships…

    I don’t know what can be done. The internet has taught us to expect things for free, and it might be impossible to break that mindset. But, like Craig, if someone can invent something that works, I’d be more than happy to join.

  5. Craig Calcaterra said...

    lar—I’ve seen the iTunes example a few times recently, but there’s a huge difference there.  The providers of free music were sued into near non-existence, and common citizens were sued in a scattershot yet high-profile manner.  Though many alternatives remain for free music and many savvy people will still risk it, the great majority of people have been put on notice that they’re breaking the law—or at least doing something rather risky—by not paying for music.

    Personally speaking I’d love for people to fear prosecution for reading Pinto for free instead of paying to read me, but it’s just not going to happen that way any time soon.

    At least as far as Pinto know. wink

  6. lar said...

    That’s true, Craig. But I didn’t mean for my point to be that Napster:iTunes :: blogs:???.

    My point was more that $0.99 seems like a lot of money to me to pay for something as easy to distribute as a digitial copy of a song, but some people pop iTunes music like pills. So, if $0.99 is so disposable in that regard, why is it so priceless when it comes to blogs?

    I understand the argument that music is easier to use and re-use than blogs/books/etc, and I agree with that. But there’s a difference in buying the brand new Pearl Jam or U2 or whoever’s cd that you’ve been looking forward to for months (and listening to that over and over again) and in going on a spur-of-the-moment Weird Al or American Idol or Huey Lewis shopping spree. Chances are, you’re only going to hear that “Power of Love” song once every few weeks or months, but, man, it sure was cheap at 99 cents, right?

    It’s a mentality that I find hard to understand.

  7. Patrick Murtha said...

    There is too much free content available on the Internet for me to absorb; therefore, I would not pay for any of it. The Internet decisively demonstrates that human enthusiasm trumps the desire for remuneration; if that was not true, millions if not billions of web-pages couldn’t have been created for free. “Free” is now in the DNA of the Internet, and it would take an awful lot to change that.

    As an example on another front, paid positions for “film critics” are disappearing not just because of the well-publicized troubles of newspapers and magazines, but because there are thousands of wannabes out there willing to do the same work for nothing—and frankly, a fair number of them are just as good as the people who do get paid.

  8. Jon said...

    It will never work.  I wouldn’t pay $1 a year collectively for RSS feeds of every blog I’ve ever read, let alone for just one of them. 

    Look at the sites where pay-for-content has actually worked.  Even if you set the bar for your definition of “worked” really, really low, we’re still taking a millionth of a percent of all the websites out there.  If the goal is to join that club, you (And here I mean the general “you”, not anyone in particular) probably have better odds if you just play the lottery every day. 

    Because there is a ton of free stuff, making it harder to access your content is not a really smart plan.  The WSJ can do it because, for many, they are THE paper.  And I believe even the WSJ is letting more and more content out from behind the pay wall.

  9. Jay said...

    The reason I proposed charging for the RSS feed is that you are paying for the convenience, not the content. Time is money, and it’s inefficent to have to visit a website and see whether it has been updated or not.

    I think what differentiates blogs from newspapers is that each is much more unique as compared to the alternatives. Much of what is in one newspaper is written in a fashion that gives you the facts and does very little else. This makes reading a story from the NYT awfully similar to reading it in Philly Inquirer or Kansas City Star. Blogs thrive on the editorialization, especially when linking to a story to a major outlet.

    The reason that the WSJ can charge for content is because you can’t get it anywhere else.

    Jon – You really wouldn’t pay $1 a YEAR for ALL of your RSS feeds? Just on principle? or are you even more broke than I am?

  10. Jon said...

    On principle, yes.  If it can be copied instantly at no cost, it should be free.

    You have to realize that, if people started charging for RSS feeds, someone would just write a script to check the front page for new stuff, and put a link on Twitter or something every time a new post appeared.  So all you’ve accomplished is annoying your fans and effectively accepting a few $1 donations.  You’d be better off putting out a PayPal tip jar.

  11. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Takes longer for you, Ron.  They gotta convert their dollars to Pounds, you know.  Keep writing. You’ll get your reward eventually.

  12. Pete Toms said...

    I see good things happening for sports bloggers.

    Aren’t bloggers being compensated at the likes of SB Nation and Bleacher Report?  I don’t read either but I do know SB Nation has some serious muscle behind it and BR gets a big audience.  As old media continues dying, will these sorts of sites grow along?  I think yes, big time. 

    Baseball Prospectus is featured regularly at ESPN (ok, BP isn’t a blog but it is internet sports reporting). 

    River Ave Blues is the most recent blog to be picked up by a team RSN.  They will be part of YES soon.

    I’m not sayin that some bloggers are cashin in or are about to cash in big but the trend is good. (if you’re a blogger)

  13. Jason @ IIATMS said...

    Pete, that’s sort of a long term concept/goal for me, building the next SB Nation.  shhh, it’s still a secret though.  If Craig were charging for this, only a few people would know.

  14. Craig Calcaterra said...

    I assume you’re referring to my cup of coffee with AOL FanHouse?

    It was interesting, but it was kind of a square peg/round hole thing for me. The people were great—editors and bloggers were all very smart and nice as all get-out—but the setup didn’t fit me too well.  Two primary problems for me:

    1) whether it was intentional or just how it evolved, there was a premium placed on grabbing breaking news and just putting up a regurg of wire stories.  To the bloggers’ credit (again, all really smart dudes) they were almost always able to add something to the story in order to make it more than a strait repeat of a wire, but I always felt that a little bit more time before news breaking and writing about it was in order. Given that it was pay-per-post, there was certainly a strong incentive to “claim” a story first, and if you claimed something, you felt pressure to publish your post pretty quickly, and I simply don’t do well under those conditions.

    2) With 5-6 bloggers sharing one writing space, it was really difficult to build on your previous posts, because the last post you did may have been buried by 15 posts since you wrote it.  To the extent I feel comfortable blogging, it’s because I can trust that most of my readers have been around a while, know my biases, know my sense of humor, and thus I don’t have to provide 50 lines of exposition before each joke, reference, or insight.  Example: I did two posts in a week or so slamming Brian Sabean for something. Given how much content even the most dedicated reader had to wade through to get from one to another, they both came off kind of isolated and mean spirited.  As it stands I think I push the envelope on that sort of thing here—10 posts a day is a lot for people to process—but it was way worse at FanHouse.

    Ultimately, however, it was a basic time crunch inasmuch as I wanted to maintain this blog too, and didn’t feel that I could dedicate myself to adapting to the requirements of AOL’s setup—I think the answer would have been to post there 10 times a day—and still maintain ShysterBall.

    As far as the business of it went, the pay-per-post was negligible enough ($10 or so for a regular post, $50 for a longer, “feature” post)  to where it was easy for me to decide to stop blogging there and concentrate on developing my voice here.

  15. ditmars1929 said...

    Craig, I don’t think charging for content will work.  People have come to expect content to be free, and take that for granted.  Several major media companies (Wall St. Journal, etc.) tried it and failed.  Also, there are so many millions of sites out there, that there will always be free alternatives to those sites who try to charge.

  16. dlf said...

    It’s only one data point, but for what its worth, I’d be happy to pay.  I pay for Bill James On Line and have in the past paid for Prospectus and ESPN Insider and think Hardball Times in general and Shyster’s little corner of that world in particular, are better than those.

  17. Craig Calcaterra said...

    I suspect you’re right, Ditmars, though I should point out that most people seem to think that WSJ is the rare example of pay-for-content that has actually been successful. NYT and many other newspapers, however, have not been successful.

    And to be clear: I’m not planning on exploring pay-for-content.  I’m a general pessimist about that sort of thing, and unless and until someone can show me a model with some level of detail that makes sense, I can’t picture ever doing it.

  18. David Pinto said...

    I don’t know, Craig.  I’m running a pledge drive, and only a very small percentage of my readers are willing to donate anything.  If half the people who visited the site in a month donated $5, I could run the site easily for a year.  But donations come from only a few people.

  19. Jason @ IIATMS said...

    I think charging for content is a very slippery slope for the very reason you mention, Craig.  You have your loyalists, like myself, DLF (above), Jay, Mark and a large group of others.  But would enough of us be able to support you in a way that allows you to do this full time?  That’s hard to say.

    I’ve donated to Dave Pinto’s fundraising efforts, too. 

    I’ve “sold” a few small text boxes for a flat rate, but the amounts that I have “earned” doesn’t even cover my sons’ birthday parties.

    Consolidation (1+1+1+1+1=9) seems to be an inevitable play to make any material amount of money.  Otherwise, like me, we’ll keep doing this out of the enjoyment it brings rather than the $ it brings.  That’s what makes it a hobby.

  20. Lou said...

    There is too much good content to charge.  Heck, many times I ignore RSS feeds that don’t offer full text.

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