Let's say you're at the mall. You want to buy, of all things, a newspaper or a magazine. You're willing to plunk down your 50 cents or $3.95, as usual. But a friend tells you to put the money back in your pocket. Just check out the store around the mall corner -- they're giving newspapers and magazines away for free.
That's the between-and-betwixt archives world we're entering into today. The Washington Post is making its archived articles (from some time in 2004 on--here's a Bill Clinton search) free -- if you find them through the new Google News Archives and then link back to its site. Locate the same article through the Post's own archive, directly from its own site, and you are asked to pay $3.95 per article.
Now consider what the Wall Street Journal is up to. If you are a WSJ.com subscriber, you get any articles within the last 90 days for free, then are asked to pay $2.95 per article. That experience hasn't changed on wsj.com. But search for same articles, apparently as much as 10 years old, through Google News Archive. If you're a subscriber, you get to those for free.
What's going on here?
Now, the advent of Google News Archives, with its promise of massive new attention to archives, offers a great test ground, as I noted at launch. Publishers can see what kind of traffic is driven by what kinds of articles. They can then monetize that traffic on their own sites, multiplying it in value with behavioral tracking as they perfect such tracking. They can try to turn some first-time visitors into customers, building lifetime value. How many? At what yield? To what content? Those are all the question that publishers would love to have answered.
The testing isn't brand new of course. The New York Times opened up its travel and health archives, among others, over the last couple of years, creating better ad-friendly destination areas. A few sites, like the Chronicle's SFGate have long offered free access to archives.
Already, in talking with publishers, it's clear that Google News Archives is beginning to have an impact, at least in traffic. Not a big one for most sites, in the 5-15% plus-traffic range, with lower conversion rates (turning the archive link into a sale). Some very low-trafficked archives have seen an increase of as much as 3X in traffic, which tells you something about how little marketed they have been in the past.
The testing is inevitable. After all, most of the signs on the wall point to free, free, free. As a young alternative weekly (Willamette Valley Observer) publisher in Eugene, Oregon in the 1970s, I remember to sticking to paid circulation too long. Other alternative weeklies in larger cities had begun moving to free.
We were bedeviled by the same paid/free questions news publishers have today. Will the advertisers value free copies and continue advertising? If you give journalism away, doesn't it cheapen it?
Those are fine, abstract questions.
Today the handwriting is on the wall, though. Look of course at the Google/Yahoo/MSN distribution models. Look at AOL's decision to forego a huge access revenue stream and go free. Look what happens to the wsj.com traffic when advertisers sponsor a free day(s). Look at the growth of the Metro free dailies, the new Examiner chain and the boom in free, college newspapers. You can add much more to that list.
What is it about free that publishers don't understand?
So these testing moves and others make sense. At the Wall Street Journal particularly, you can see a broader question, one that is surely to be in the mix as the Journal's new
3.0 corporate news strategy project, led by editor Paul Ingrassia, moves forward. Observers have speculated to what extent wsj.com itself will become a free site, allowing its page views to multiply, though foregoing subscription revenue.
Don't expect the company to give up that sub revenue soon. Gordon Crovitz, president of Dow Jones Consumer Media Group and publisher of the The Wall Street Journal, tells Content Bridges that "while we're making more Journal content available outside the subscription wall on a selective basis, such as via bloggers, we're delighted with the highly profitable subscription model for the online Journal." It's a great model most of you probably remember: money from readers + money from advertisers = a big, happy newsroom. Unfortunately, the Journal's success with it online is a lonely example for news companies.
Expect to see a lot more "selective" content testing, a lot more combining of current news and archive products, lots of new attempts to find more customers and offer them pinpointed, useful and lucrative-to-publishers advertisers. Most of all, expect the publishing world to free itself up as the distribution juggernauts like Google put hidden content front and center of hundreds of millions of customers worldwide.