Charging ahead: will readers pay for news online?

Media companies have been grappling with the age-old question of whether or not to charge for their online content for years. Some, like The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, made the switch to a paid model early on and stuck with it, while others, such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, tried but gave up.

Many publishers have come to realize that not charging a fee of some kind is going to kill their business.

News Cop.’s founder and chairman, Rupert Murdoch, said in August that all of his company’s publications would begin charging for online news, following the Journal’s lead – which now has more than one million web subscribers compared to weekly print circulation of approximately two million. Starting in October, the Journal will also charge fees ($1 per week for subscribers and $2 per week for mobile only) content on its mobile application on BlackBerrys and iPhones.

Other publishers have also decided to begin charging for news. Time Inc. announced earlier this year that it would experiment with a mix of free and paid content at its magazines, such as Time and Sports Illustrated. And Variety will revert back to making users pay for a digital subscription in February.

But what business model to go with is still up for debate. Two of the largest U.S. papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are participating in a new service with Google that involves revenue sharing.Micropayments have also been considered but they appear to have a bad track record, according to social media guru Clay Shirky (a panellist at Ryerson’s What’s Next for News? event on Oct. 2).

News veteran and media blogger Alan Mutter has proposed an industry-owned solution that would allow users to purchase individual articles, subscriptions or bundles of content at participating websites. Meanwhile, media executive Steven Brill has founded Journalism Online, which would allow newspapers and magazines to charge for content and also take a slice of the subscription fee.

The only question is, will users subscribe?