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Paid content key issue for many publishers

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As in previous years, Media Business' third annual compilation of “10 Great Media Sites” reflects current trends, technologies and strategies in digital media. In 2007, the best media sites were differentiated by the quality of the user experience and breadth of functionality. Last year, the leading sites notably introduced or expanded social media and community tools. The emphasis in online business media this year is monetization—no surprise in light of the economic downturn. As print advertising has plummeted, publishers have become more determined to make money online. Two of the sites recognized by Media Business this year—FT.com and WSJ.com—are at the center of the debate over paid content, a controversy that has grown more heated as the economy has cooled. The Financial Times' FT.com was selected in the paid subscription category while The Wall Street Journal's WSJ.com was the leader in the general business category. The Wall Street Journal's ultimate boss, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, stoked the smoldering paid content debate during an Aug. 5 earnings call. “The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive methods of distribution, but it has not made content free,” Murdoch said. He added that News Corp. would leverage its experience from WSJ.com “to increase our revenues from all our content.” “We're not saying much beyond what Rupert Murdoch has said publicly,” Gordon McLeod, president of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, told Media Business. He added that WSJ.com “has a healthy roadmap for [new offerings] in the areas of personalization, commerce and premium content” that will debut this fall. Meanwhile, executives from the Financial Times talked to other news organizations about the success of their paid subscription strategies. The International Herald Tribune quoted John Ridding, Financial Times chief executive, saying, “People [are] throwing up their hands and saying it's not possible for general publishers to charge. I think it is possible, and necessary, for them to charge.” Ben Hughes, global commercial director and deputy CEO of the Financial Times, said FT.com would be “trying out the pay-per-article model next year” in addition to continuing to build its paid subscriber base. “We need to be as flexible as possible,” he added, to give users a choice in how they will pay for content. The American Lawyer, the Incisive Media brand whose americanlawyer.com was selected as this year's great nontechnology trade site, is also in the midst of an evolution in its subscription strategy. As a paid publication, The American Lawyer made only a limited amount of its magazine content available for free on its Web site. That strategy did not change when the Web site was relaunched in May 2008. However, a new free e-newsletter, the Am Law Daily, now provides a significant layer of content in the form of original daily news. “The impact has been transformational,” said Aric Press, editor in chief. The newsletter goes to 60,000 opt-in subscribers, and unique monthly visitors to the Web site exploded from 36,000 to 136,000. “We will go to a more fine-tuned-free, free-with-registration and paid-tier system in the fall,” Press said. M
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