From the very beginning, online news has been one of the Web's success stories. Dailies, weeklies, regionals and newsletters have flooded the Internet, and for the most part, bridged the gap between print publishing and the virtual world. Despite high costs, free distribution and little or no profits, many now boast high subscriber rates, growing advertising revenue and valuable market research data.
A late arrival on the Web, weekly newspaper The European, spurns the newly learned wisdom that Net surfers are loath to pay for news. Instead, it aims to keep costs low and charge for content, making only a nominal portion of the newspaper available for free. What little there is remains insubstantial: news headlines with no hyperlinks to the full story, tables from the major European football leagues (no results), European cities information and European parliamentary news.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH CHARGING FOR CONTENT?
There's nothing wrong with charging for content per se, if it's good enough, convenient enough and not available elsewhere. What goes against the grain is charging for a product that makes poor use of the medium. The Web version of The European is supposed to be a teaser for potential subscribers, but it's my guess it will have the opposite effect. Add to that the full version of The European, a digital replica of the newsstand title, sets readers back #52 a year, and is just under a 1Mb download - about 5 minutes on a 28.8Kbps modem.
Peter Green, technical development manager and site designer at The European, says given limited resources, the brief from the top was to produce a site that would eventually run itself and recover costs. That meant figuring out how to get roughly 180 pages of information to a modem quickly and charging right from the off. Green also admits the project went through a number of incarnations. "At first we tried the Acrobat PDF format, but the file sizes were too big - between 10Mb and 12Mb. Then we launched an ISDN service." Neither was particularly successful, he admits.
It wasn't until Adobe launched Acrobat 3.0 that Green was able to compress the files to a more realistic size. Even so, the results don't compare favourably with sites like The Times or The Telegraph which use different tools and delivery methods.
Instead, Green favours another Adobe product, Pagemill, a general purpose HTML editor which he gets free in beta format from the manufacturer. Because it's a weekly, the site takes only two hours to update, but with new editor Andrew Neil (ex-Times and sometimes TV pundit) ringing the changes, Peters says it could be done on a daily basis within a month.
On the hardware side though, The European sits on a powerful SunSparc Web server running Netscape Commerce server software. A Cisco router connects into ISP Cable & Wireless via a Mercury 128K leased line.
I asked what the rationale was behind charging readers to view content and Green said: "The European is nowhere near the size of some other dailies and we don't have the same resources. If we gave it away for nothing, we'd go out of business. I do think it's folly for others from a strategic point of view because they could be making money out of it."
According to Green, he and the board looked at other papers on the Web and decided that instead of being a free information service provider like The Telegraph, they'd act as retailers providing a service to potential readers. "We have a graphics designer and no one else so it's pretty much automated. The cost of producing it is around 3200 pounds a week," he says. He estimates that with over 20 staff on some online papers, costs must be high, but he also believes that advertising is helping their revenue stream creep up.
Although it's hard to believe, Green says the Web site has now paid for itself through subscription and advertising. Two per cent of visitors to the site become subscribers with the bulk of subscriptions coming from North America and places where The European isn't circulated like Africa and South America.
Breaking the mould is a brave move on The European's part, but it's my bet it'll be looking at a new revenue model by the end of the year.
Launch: June 97
Design: Peter Green, in-house
Target Audience: New and existing readers
Competitors: UK daily newspapers
Setup: Sunsparc running Netscape commerce
Development cost: #30,000
Hits Per Day: Undisclosed
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