As the advertising ice age continues killing off media dinosaurs, GigaOm's announcement of a plan to charge $79 a year for premium blog content again raises the issue: Is anybody actually willing to pay?
Taken another way: How much media has to die before users are willing to pay for what's left?
With online ad revenue at the four top portals down 3.3 percent during the first quarter, according to eMarketer, publishers are scrambling for new revenue sources. Whether they will find them is a huge question for readers and publishers alike.
Charging for content seems so easy. Take your best stuff and attach a price tag to it.
Rupert Murdoch, whose Wall Street Journal is one of a handful of sites successfully charging for content, has promised users "will pay handsomely" to get WSJ content on their iPhones. Other sites, including the New York Times, have backed away from some paid content they previously offered.
Today, it takes incredible confidence to go to a mostly-paid content model, such as the one used by the WSJ. Half-hearted attempts, such as those at the NYT, have failed.
Online publishers should prepare themselves for a massive shift toward paid content, a concurrent emphasis on protecting their content from poaching by free sites, and plan for battling those sites that remain free in hopes of grabbing people unwilling to pay for their news and other content.
The great fear is that paid sites will not be able to compete with the remaining free sites. However, as more newspapers and magazines fail, readers will have fewer sources for information. This should send more ad revenue to the survivors while making their content more valuable as well.
Whether consolidation will result in fewer news sources divying up enough ad revenue for each to survive seems highly questionable.
For many years, it was considered a "truth" that consumers would not be willing to pay for television programming. That changed. The WSJ has proven that valuable, fairly exclusive content can find paying readers.
Whether GigaOm and other blog can generate content people will pay to read and what happens to "news of the day" sites remains to be seen.
Realistically, users need to start preparing for a day when the best content will come with a price attached. Advertising seems unlikely to carry the load of paying for the free media that it once supported.
This will have the effect, as paid content is delivered ad-free, of making customers more difficult for advertisers to reach. At which point, free content may become more available and a balance between paid and free will be found. Just expect more mass extinction, followed by a shift to paid content, before this occurs.