Will Readers Pay For an All-Access Media Pass?

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Quietly in the works since the beginning of this year, The Content Project, hopes to prove that readers will pay enough for online content to keep existing media companies thriving. But don't use the term paywall. David Restrepo, TCP's general manager, hates that term, even though it's exactly what he's building.

"Don't think of The Content Project as another quote-unquote paywall solution," Restrepo told me in a brief phone interview, only the second that he had given concerning his new project. "We do not like the term 'paywall' or even the idea or metaphor. It's sort of an all or nothing."

TCP, a joint venture between 24/7 Real Media and Schematic, two companies that fall under the umbrella of WPP, the world's largest advertising firm, is a platform that will "enable publishers to offer premium, paid content while increasing the value of their advertising inventory," according to an executive summary released by TCP. By establishing partnerships with several media companies, the project hopes to make the process of paying for content painless.

Several companies, chosen because they have large portfolios of online properties, have expressed an interest, according to Restrepo. The service is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2011, but how will readers respond?

The debate surrounding paywalls has raged for years as media companies struggle to survive in an increasingly digital age where readers have come to expect free content. Even the largest newspaper in the country isn't sure exactly how to support its newsgathering operation.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. made headlines last week when he conceded that the New York Times will one day only be available to readers in a digital form. "We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD," he said in response to a question posed at a conference in London. Printing and distributing a newspaper simply costs a lot of money. The Times is launching a paywall next year that should bring in additional revenue, perhaps allowing the print side to survive. But even if the Times' "paywall is highly successful ... this will add another $100 million of online subscription revenue," Henry Blodget wrote on Business Insider. That's significant, but nowhere near what the paper's current newsroom budget runs.

There's no word on whether the Times has been approached by TCP -- and Restrepo, who has previously worked with several Fortune 500 companies, declined to name any of the outfits he has been in talks with.

Associating with the project would have obvious pros and cons for the paper. By implementing the TCP platform, the Times -- or any other company that decides to begin a partnership -- would save itself significant development costs associated with a paywall's construction. In addition, it would have the opportunity to bring in outside readers who might otherwise not have visited the site.

The way the platform works is that users encounter a tag on a story or piece of content that tells them it is part of the TCP network. By registering, that individual can then open an account with what Fast Company described as a "mobile wallet." With a single fee paid to TCP, that user can fluidly purchase any digital content that is part of the entire network. They won't have to open individual accounts with every site that decides to establish a paywall. Think of it like the comment service Disqus (used here on The Atlantic) for paid journalism. Individual publishers will be able to decide how much to charge visitors and with what model. (Some options TCP proposes: 24-hour all-access passes, monthly or yearly subscriptions, metered access.)

On the downside, TCP is a company and will, of course, skim a certain percentage of payments off the top. It's unclear how the profit sharing will work or even if a model has been developed as of this writing, but will a bigger readership make up for smaller profits and prove a smart move for all companies involved? Will the Times or other major media companies want to be associated with smaller publications of ill repute? Many of the biggest companies are currently developing in-house solutions to the paywall problem, so it stands to reason that TCP's first clients will be smaller or less well-known. "The timing is right at least in the sense that publishers and online content creators are willing to experiment," Restrepo responded, cryptically, when asked if TCP had developed a basic set of guidelines that potential partners must meet.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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