One Net savant I canvassed yawningly explained that to be free or not to be free is a dumb question in today's consumer-controlled world. Even the more patient Jeff Marshall, senior VP, Starcom IP, found my inquiry redundant. "Internet publishers will work more like the airlines: Consumers want different things so they have to pay different rates. There will be multiple models."
It's a shades-of-gray conclusion, but borne out by the facts. Just look at the contradictory moves by mainstream Web publishers. Even as Dow Jones-long the paid-for poster child-revealed plans to hike subscription rates and The New York Times found some columnists, archives and other assets to hide behind a $50 curtain, several others such as AOL, The Los Angeles Times and CNN moved in the opposite direction, dismantling their toll booths.
So it's horses for courses then. Some will charge, others won't, and there'll be many middle-ground solutions. Nothing to debate.
But wait. What if one side is backing the wrong horse? What if the pay-to-play guys are missing an opportunity and the advocates of a "free" Internet are more than just naive advocates of egalitarianism?
The thought occurred to me when I read a report about American Business Media's spring conference on BtoBonline.com. It contained this gem: "Responding to an audience question about when Forbes.com will surpass the print edition in terms of revenue, Jim Spanfeller, president-CEO of Forbes.com, said: `Probably in about 18 to 20 months."'
Mr. Spanfeller was referring only to ad dollars, not total revenue, and now refuses to comment on the remark, or even to confirm that he made it. Still, if it's true-and those who know the Forbes operation say it likely is-it's huge. This is not an obscure techie trade, this is Forbes. An 80-year-old leading business pub, national circulation of around 900,000, global circ of 5 million-plus, that will soon be overshadowed in business terms by its online spawn.
How has it come so far in the digital realm so fast? Largely by being, in almost every regard, free, and therefore part of the open-to-all, continuous conversation that takes place via forums, blogs and links all over the Net. That is not to take anything away from Forbes.com's editorial package, which is highly readable, responsive and totally tuned to Web viewers.
ComScore Networks' global visitor numbers tell the story. In 2002, WSJ.com was averaging around 1 million unique visitors a month, FT.com 1.3 million, Fortune.com 1.7 million and Forbes.com, 1.7 million. Three years on and WSJ.com is averaging around 3.3 million unique visitors; FT.com, which gated much of its content in mid-2002, is around 1.8 million; Fortune.com, which allows viewers to see a little free content before shuttling them to a subs sign-up form, averages 1.3 million. And Forbes.com? It's at about 7.8 million.
Of course there's more to marketing than reach, but big numbers are still the big draw. Marketers are showing a voracious appetite for online inventory and eyeballs-indeed for any alternative to broadcast TV-and are starting to embrace the mass targetability and measurability of a Web audience. In that situation, which site would you like to own?
WSJ and FT run great sites, (they sap my funds every month). But their pay-to-play models smack of defending the old business, not embracing the new. We will never know how dominant a free WSJ.com could have been, or whether WSJ parent Dow Jones would have had to shell out $528 million to buy CBS Marketwatch if it had espoused a different model. But I'll wager Forbes is pretty happy things worked out the way they did.