In an earlier post I preached: "as with all products, what drives loyalty to a [news] brand is the reliable, repeated satisfaction of a key consumer need. The main need in news is coverage. And that need is addressed by the aggregation of content, not content itself." I then ventured a prediction: "Barring legal hurdles, one day we will see the likes of the Drudge go behind a pay-wall even if most of the content they link to is free."
Thinking about this today, an idea struck me: if what can be monetised is the aggregation (i.e. listing) of content and not content itself, then perhaps online publishers could charge people for the right to see their front pages, while giving away their content for free.
Yes this is counterintuitive. Publishers are used to thinking of their content as their product and their front page as a tool for promoting that product. But turn that around. If what people pay for is the listing then the content is secondary.
Anyone following an external link to one of your articles would not be asked to pay. But people who want to find out what you think are today's news would need to pay. Your occasional readers are in the second first, while your loyal readers are in the second. And if you buy the idea that you have no chance of getting non-loyal readers to pay for a subscription, here you have a straightforward way of charging only those who will pay while still getting advertising revenues from the rest. This is just a simple example of the price-discrimination logic behind all sophisticated pay-wall schemes that I discussed in another post.
But, you object, anyone can find my content in Google News and read it! True, I reply, but those people are not your loyal readers. Loyal readers won't be able to use Google News or search engines as a backdoor to your content (a-la WSJ/Google FirstClick), because to do that they would first need to find out what your latest articles are – and that would be restricted information.
I'm not sure this would work, but it's worth a more careful look. If you do go this way, you may want to stop publishing RSS feeds of your content (even headline-only feeds), and you may need to sue anyone who scrapes your site to automatically publish an up-to-date list of your news with links (there are precedents of something like this; other kinds of aggregation like manually-placed links or Google News would be OK, as they don't substitute for your front page). This would mean treating aggregation itself as content, and subjecting it to copyright. Why not.