I've heard it thousands of times: "The big mistake newspapers made was not charging for access from the beginning."
But it's not true that newspapers didn't charge for access right from the beginning.
Let's roll back the clock about 15 years. Here are some of the newspapers that were pursuing the paid-access model:
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- Los Angeles Times
- Providence Journal
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- Minneapolis Star Tribune
- Washington Post
- New Haven Register
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- Palm Beach Post
- San Jose Mercury News
- Chicago Tribune
- New York Times
- Detroit Free Press
All told, in 1995, Editor and Publisher reported there were 45 newspapers on paid platforms.
Is that a surprise?
Typically the newspaper would join with a partner that provided publishing technology and commercial services including the paid-access infrastructure and customer support, and additional content.
There were three basic models. AOL partners such as the Mercury News and the New York Times were bundled into the core AOL service at one common rate. Prodigy partners such as the AJC and the Los Angeles Times tacked a $5 monthly newspaper access surcharge onto the basic Prodigy bill. Ziff-Davis (later, AT&T) Interchange partners such as the Washington Post and the Star Tribune marketed their services directly, under their own brands, and bundled Interchange core services as a bonus (sort of a flip of the AOL model).
All of these services were demolished by the free and open model of the Internet shortly after the Mosaic web browser became available and local flat-rate Internet service providers popped up all over the country. It didn't take long -- a matter of months, really.
Many of the newspapers that I named tried to hold onto the paid content model while building Web-facing portals for classified advertising.
The stampede of users away from walled gardens and into the open range of the Internet brought to an end the era of paid online content that began with the invention of Teletext long before Bill Gates and Paul Allen even thought of creating a software company.
By the way, in 1993 you could buy a piece of software for that would assemble a personalized, printable "newspaper" for $80. Another not-so-new idea.