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Take two steps back from journalism: What are the editorial products we’re not building?
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Aug. 4, 2010, 1 p.m.

“AdSense for online subscriptions”: Meet MediaPass, the platform that wants to put pores in your paywall

In a post over at Poynter yesterday, Rick Edmonds analyzed the paid-content experience of Spokane’s paper, the Spokesman-Review — and made, in the process, a case for a mixture of paid content and free living together on a media website. A case for, essentially, a porous paywall.

Like a number of industry analysts I have spoken with recently, [digital operations director Shaun] Higgins sees a business model in which news and special, online-only features (like a columnist singing his song parodies) is used to draw an audience. Once on the site, users can then buy archived articles, click on contextual ads and search local business listings. So the site essentially acts as a free marketing tool that can be used to pitch an assortment of products.

The upshot, for both Higgins and, by the looks of things, Edmonds: the walled-versus-free debate about web content, with its broad and often politicized terms, misses the point. Because “the obvious answer for newspapers” is “a hybrid formula.”

If that’s the case (and if The New York Times’ current path toward porousness is any indication of Paywall Zeitgeist, it could be), then publishers have another option for selective monetization besides Press+, Journalism Online‘s paywall-facilitator: MediaPass. The platform takes a brick-by-brick approach to walls: through its modular system, it wants to give publishers the flexibility to determine not only the specific terms of their subscription asks, but also which sections (or even individual pages) of their content to make premium in the first place.

As MediaPass’ CEO, Matt Mitchell, puts it: “We want to be to online subscriptions what AdSense has been to online advertising.”

That ambitious goal pivots, like many such goals do, on a simple insight: whether you’re searching the web or monetizing its content, ease of use can make all the difference. “Part of the reason everybody monetizes through advertising networks and AdSense and Yahoo’s comparable product,” Mitchell told me, “is that it’s all very easy.” MediaPass tries to leverage the power of simplicity through its quick, AdSense-y sign-up process: provide your site’s basic info, select your subscription’s price point (when I tested the system out, the pre-populated options were one-month, three-month or six-month periods at fees of $9.95, $20.85, and $47.40 respectively — though you can write in your own price, as well), and MediaPass generates a line of Javascript that you can paste onto the back-end text of whatever content you want to keep behind your wall. There are no up-front costs for publishers who use the service. And the code itself is laid over content rather than integrated into it — and thus won’t, MediaPass promises, affect a site’s SEO.

The business proposition? MediaPass takes a flat 35 percent commission on subscription sales. (That’s an “introductory rate,” Mitchell told me, noting AdSense’s 68 percent cut for content ads.) And the value proposition for publishers, Mitchell says, comes in the system’s ease of use — which translates to nimbleness of use. As the MediaPass site notes, alluding to the Times of both New York and London, “a change is occurring in the industry as major media conglomerates have announced plans to charge a subscription for some of their online content. But while they are investing significant time, money and resources in building a proprietary subscription infrastructure, you can get started right now.

So what about the most common argument against a paywall strategy — that whatever money you manage to make in subscriptions and other payments will be negated by the exodus of the walled-off masses?

“If you do it right, you don’t lose users,” Mitchell says. ESPN.com, he points out, hasn’t seen a drop in its user base since it went paywall with Insider; quite the opposite. What’s “right” will vary by publication; still, Mitchell notes, it’s clear that, online ads being what they are, publishers need something beyond ads to support themselves. (Even the Huffington Post, he points out, widely cited as a successful outlet in terms of popularity and influence and other traditional metrics, has yet to turn a steady profit.)

Again, though, hybridity is key. Take the Times of London‘s paywall, which, Mitchell says, erred on the side of excess: it put everything behind its wall, without even abbreviated content to let non-subscribers know what they’re missing. A smarter strategy is seduction: You need enough content outside the wall, Mitchell says, to entice users to come in. You need peepholes. You need pores.

As for MediaPass’ pitch to publishers: the point isn’t necessarily to convince them of the merits of salvation-via-subscription. It is, though, to convince them to give paywalling a try. To take some of the life-or-death, all-or-nothing thinking that often surrounds the paid content debate…and re-direct it toward some (potentially) productive experimentation. As the platform’s FAQ sheet puts it: “Our entire goal in creating MediaPass was to make a subscription system that is easy to try with no obligations. We wanted to create a service in which publishers would ask themselves, ‘Why not?'”

POSTED     Aug. 4, 2010, 1 p.m.
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