Former WaPo Web Editor: Second-guessing on Charging for Online Content Ignores Key Points

Jim Brady, the former executive editor of the excellent WashingtonPost.com, talks to journalism think tank the Poynter Institute this week about the state of online journalism. Brady has been in online journalism for 14 years, working at the Post and America Online.

In a conversation with Poynter’s Steve Myers, the conversation inevitably drifts to online revenue models, and whether it wise for newspapers, all those years ago, to plunge headlong into cyberspace giving away their content all willy-nilly, which many now blame for the industry’s troubles. But Brady says that complaint — that newspapers entered the online world and gave away content for free — misses some key points:

1) I don’t remember this for sure, but I’m relatively positive we didn’t have the technology in-house to charge people for content when we launched washingtonpost.com in 1996. 2) Almost no one was willing to enter credit card information in 1996, so adoption rates on charging probably would have been low. 3) If half the papers had charged, the other half probably would have gone free for competitive advantage, so the idea — as I’ve heard it posited — that “we all should have charged” ignores the basic fact that media organizations would never have agreed to act unilaterally. And as long as any good sites were free, the pressure would have been on all of us to pull down the pay walls.

And speaking of walls and revenue, Brady suggests that for online news sites to be successful, there has to be more collaboration between the editorial side of the wall and the sales side, something that has traditionally been unthinkable at newspapers and other media companies.

I’m on record as saying that the Chinese wall between the editorial side and the business side has not served us well. I don’t see the harm in my knowing what sales is hearing out in the field in terms of what subject areas are drawing interest, and what the broader ad trends are. I know exactly where the church-state line is, and I’ll never cross it. But why wouldn’t I want to know what challenges sales is facing? It works in reverse as well. My relationship with our sales VP at washingtonpost.com was terrific, and as a result of us talking, he knew where I drew the line and helped hold that line with his folks.

The obstacles that come up are the obvious ones: when an advertiser is offering to pay a lot of money for an implementation that I felt violated our editorial standards. But that’s precisely why it’s important to have the right foundational relationship with sales; it makes those issues easier to resolve. If you’re only talking to sales in those conflict situations, then I think you have a problem.

More from Brady on strategies for running a news site on a limited budget and building an online news operation from scratch here.

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