Today's Technology Guardian reports that CNN.com has followed in the recent footsteps of the Economist and the Wall Street Journal in doing away with online subscriptions and making its content available to everyone online.
The assumption is that advertisers will stump up more cash if the publication has a larger community of online readers. But for quality publications like the WSJ and the Economist, the move to free content carries a high risk of damage to the publication's 'brand', especially if the publication actively involves readers in generating the site's content.
At the Blogs and Social Media Forum in June, Economist.com publisher Ben Edwards said that the quality of Economist readers was such that there was little danger of comments threads on the site's new social media sections descending into unpleasant flame wars or ad hominem attacks, as is so often the case elsewhere.
Specifically, he contrasted the high quality of reader commentary on economist.com with 'partisan and nasty' comments evident on washingtonpost.com, saying:
What I want to create is an experience that reflects back to my readers, my customers, the sort of experience they expect when they come to the Economist [...] The Economist is quite formal, it’s a little bit stuffy, it can be irreverent, the readers would consider themselves, I think, clever, worldly, intellectually curious, and I suspect – I don’t know this, but I suspect – that what they’d like to see on economist.com is all of those attributes reflected back to them in the reader-generated comment and content that we attract to the web property.
[A video of Edwards's presentation is available at Cybersoc.com]
Not only was Edwards relying on his 'clever, worldly, intellectually curious' readers to reflect the Economist's high editorial standards in their comments, he was actively using these attributes as selling points to attract advertisers:
I tell my advertising clients that my readers are in positions of power and influence, and they have average household incomes of $160,000 a year, and they are three times more likely to be driving a luxury car and so on. Actually this sort of [reader-generated] content validates my message back to my advertising clients, that yes, look at the quality of my readership.
This attitude was all and well and good when economist.com was subscription only. After all, no one is going to fork out £23 a quarter to mete out online abuse when they can do that for free on washingtonpost.com, Comment is Free or any number of openly-accessible media sites that allow user comments.
But with economist.com now freely accessible, comments threads are now open to everyone, not just thoughtful Economist readers with their comfortable incomes and luxury cars. The paper no longer has any control over who reads the site, and with its apparently laissez-faire moderation policy*, it also seems to have largely opted out of controlling who contributes to it. For financial reasons Edwards wants to make the fledgling community self-regulating, because 'if you don't do that you're going to be ending up employing lots of people'.
At the time of writing, the letters to the editor pages (the first on the site to be comments-enabled) are almost completely devoid of comments, suggesting that so far, the paper has failed to create any sort of online reader community, whether respectful, abusive or otherwise. With the opening up of its content, it may find its self-imposed task of creating an online 'community of letter-writers' to be an easier one, but the quality of those 'letters', the quality of the advertisers it is able to attract and the integrity of the Economist's brand may all suffer as a result.
* Reading out economist.com's stated policy of not publishing letters that the paper judges 'are not intended for publication, or are otherwise inappropriate', Edwards added 'I'm not quite sure what that last phrase means.' If he doesn't know, I wonder if anyone at economist.com does.
tags: economist | ben edwards