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Should there be a free lunch for online journalism?

Good journalism should never be free of charge online, this is according to Bronwen Auret, GM for BDFM Digital, part of the publishing joint venture between Avusa Media and Pearson, and publishers of Business Day, the Financial Mail, Summit TV the Home Channel: Ignition TV and Bignews.

BDFM is currently planning to introduce pay-walls for its BusinessDay and FinancialMail websites.

Paywalls were a hot topic at a debate arranged this week by the Digital Media and Marketing Association (formerly the Online Publishers Association), and hosted by BDFM at the Avusa offices in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Panellists, including Auret, publisher GM Geoff Cohen, IOL editor Rhys Johnstone, publishing GM Bridget Pringle and The Daily Maverick deputy editor Philip de Wet, were divided on the issue of making Internet users pay for online media content ‚ as were members of the audience.

Both Cohen and Johnstone said that to make users pay for online content, it has to be highly specific, unique, focused and targeted to the audience ‚ but very little online media content currently fits that description. However Cohen is prepared to charge users for value added services.

Pringle felt it would be difficult to make people pay for what they currently receive free of charge, and that revenue streams other than pay-walls ‚ such as advertising and content syndication ‚ should be explored first. De Wet argued vociferously that paywalls are the preserve of people who do not understand online publishing, and that a new online advertising model is required to obviate the need for paywalls.

‚This debate showed clearly that there is no unanimity in the online publishing realm yet, about how to derive income from online media content. But the fact remains that, as offline publishing revenues fall worldwide, there is increasing pressure on publishers to generate income in other ways,‚ says Auret.

‚We are willing to buy printed media, such as magazines, so why not online content? But it is apparent that to make it profitable, publishers must seriously think about their online value proposition and look at their content models.

‚Certainly, differentiation from other websites and specialist commentary should be critical elements of paid-for content. Users must trust, and seek, the unique, original opinion and analysis offered by a particular media brand’s website.

‚We have seen this, for example, with the Business Day website: the most popular section is opinion and analysis, which readers will find nowhere else. Ultimately, what people are buying is the brand, and brand equity is of utmost importance.‚

Irrespective of one’s viewpoint, says Auret, online media content ‚ and original content in particular ‚ costs money to generate, and readers should not necessarily expect it to be free. The trick, however, lies in publishers coming up with innovative and equitable user payment and advertising models to generate revenues.

‚Publishers must place value in their online products, and understand exactly where that value lies ‚ and in so doing, they will be able to leverage income in relevant and appropriate ways from online readers and advertisers,‚ she says.

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