Callum Borchers' Blog

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Bebinger highlights media’s desire to make money online

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I found Martha Bebinger‘s mere presence — never mind what she actually said — in our classroom Wednesday symbolically appropriate for a discussion about the future of journalism. For one thing, she represents a medium, radio, which many people decades ago believed would be killed by television — just as many today predict newspapers will be left in body bags by the Internet. For another, she represents an outlet, WBUR/NPR, which boasts perhaps the most successful non-advertising revenue model in American journalism.

Of course, the content of her presentation was valuable too, particularly on the revenue subject. Bebinger pointed to a subtle but significant change to the language many bloggers are using to sign up readers: They’re shifting from “RSS” to “subscribe.” At the moment, the change means little in actual practice. Readers receive notifications of new posts in similar manners (via e-mail, Twitter, etc.), whether by RSS feed or subscription.

During her visit to Dan Kennedy's Reinventing the News class Wednesday, WBUR's Martha Bebinger pointed to a subtle shift from "RSS" to "subscribe."

But the word subscription connotes payment, and Bebinger believes some bloggers — though they’re keeping their content free, for now — are using the language shift to prepare readers for future charges. No one, she theorizes, will pay for RSS; it’s a platform that’s always been free, so good luck convincing people to pay for it in the future. But subscriptions traditionally cost money. Even online, some elite outlets,  like The Wall Street Journal, have long charged for subscriptions.

Bebinger isn’t the only one who sees the foundations of paywalls being laid across cyberspace. Newsweek in January predicted 2010 would be the “Year of the Paid Subscription.”

“This year the Web turns 21,” the article begins. “So it’s somewhat ironic that 2010 will also be the year the place finally sobers up. Many of the startups and media sites that define the e-commerce ecosystem are, at long last, making serious plans to make serious money.”

It appears some of those plans are on hold. Hulu, identified by Newsweek as “the free site likeliest to begin charging in 2010” is, in fact, still free. The site pushed back indefinitely the launch of Hulu Plus, a $9.95 per month subscription that would provide access to old episodes of popular TV shows.

Still, I believe the overall media sentiment — “We’re sick of giving away our content for free” — highlighted by Bebinger and others is valid. But I also know people will refuse to pay for content they can get for free elsewhere. So if  media outlets plan to demand paid subscriptions, the challenge for us journalists is to make our work good enough and unique enough that folks will actually feel compelled to open their wallets.

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Written by callumborchers

September 16, 2010 at 9:13 am

Posted in Assignments

Tagged with , , , ,

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