Monday, March 1, 1999

Week of 03/01/1999

Slate’s Lesson - News Doesn’t Sell
And That’s A Good Thing
- by David Matthews 2

Last year, the online magazine Slate announced that they would do something sort of unusual. They would start charging people for access to their online publication.

This raised some eyebrows for online watchers, although Slate’s managing editor, Michael Kinsley, rationalized that the decision merely followed a trend seen on plenty a site devoted to sexually-oriented content - namely the hype that sexually-oriented sites are raking in big bucks on their subscriptions. So Kinsley figured if sex could sell online, why not Slate?

Well, apparently it didn’t, and the Microsoft-owned publication was forced to take down the "subscription only" sign and open their pages up to the general public once again.

Kinsley and company had apparently discovered the truth about the commercial aspects of the Internet.. namely that not everything on the Internet sells. Furbys do. "Yahoo!" does. Sexually-oriented content certainly does.

News doesn’t sell.

That’s a hard truth for the people at Slate to swallow, and they’re not alone. Consumer Reports, for instance, put their archived reports of products in a subscription site. I don’t know how much they’re generating from the people who are willing to pay the monthly subscription fee, but I don’t think it would be enough for them to warrant the service in and of itself without including some outside advertising.

The New York Times web site may look like they’ve gone subscription, but in reality their site is free of charge. All they ask is that you fill out some registration forms before proceeding. Their cost? Simply a small portion of your online anonymity - and only for as long as you’re visiting their site. The folks at the NY Times learned early on that the nature of the Internet is towards free access.

News doesn’t sell, at least not on the Internet.

Sex sells online because it is something that is sorely lacking in the real world. Let’s face it, if sex was really as open as the moralists complain that it is, sex online wouldn’t be so successful.

Furby dolls sold online because there was such a demand for them around the holiday season that anyone with a Furby was able to charge whatever the market would bear. The same holds true for Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch dolls, Star Trek collectibles, or anything else that has a consumer demand.

Stocks sell online because it allows the average consumer a chance to get involved in something that was once reserved to the elite few who could afford it. Oh sure, you still have to pay big bucks to make any real money in the stock market, but it doesn’t take Alan Greenspan to tell you that the steady rise in the stock market has something to do with the surge of people getting into the market.

But news doesn’t sell online because there is so much information out there that is free that subscription-based content cannot compete. Why go to Slate and pay for your news when you can just as easily go to MSNBC for your headlines for free? Why pay Slate to read Michael Kinsley’s commentaries when you can go to Brutally Honest,, or The Drudge Report and get your commentaries for free?

News doesn’t sell, and that’s really a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of advertising on television news and the newspapers. There is nothing more aggravating for this author when he picks up the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and finds whole sections devoted to nothing but ads with perhaps a single-column devoted to some obscure news piece from somewhere in the world. But even though we need the ads, let’s face it, there’s much in the news that would be commercially toxic. Do you think that the people running the Toyota dealerships are thrilled when they hear that their cars are the most stolen in the Atlanta area? Put a nice spin on it if you like, but they know that such news means people aren’t going to be willing to buy their cars. Do you think that the oil companies are tickled pink when they hear that one of their tankers went aground and is spilling crude over the ocean just in time for the 6 o’clock news? It doesn’t exactly spark confidence in consumer interest, does it? If it were up to them, that kind of news would not be fit to print, publish, or broadcast.

Neither am I saying there isn’t some influence by corporate interests in the news either. Think about all the news about the anti-impotence drug Viagra. The press was gushing about all the hype surrounding the drug. How good is it? How does it work? Can women use it? That kind of interest certainly helped the people who make Viagra.

But the brutally honest reality is that news - in and of itself - does not sell. It is way too common a commodity. You can sell the medium, and certainly folks like Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner have made big bucks doing that, but the message itself cannot be sold.

That’s a lesson Slate found out the hard way.

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