@ AOP: An Uncertain Media Mulls Charging With Little Enthusiasm

It should have been the topic du jour at this year’s Association of Online Publishers summit in London on Wednesday.

But the day’s key panel on paid content barely managed to elucidate the current frenzied industry challenge beyond this year’s already learned takeaway: you’ve gotta be unique.

FT.com publisher Rob Grimshaw conveyed the paper’s key message – as he and colleagues have done on these pages and elsewhere in recent months – that it can profit from paid: “For publishers, it’s not a question of choice; they’ve got to find other ways to make money. Otherwise, they’re going to have very small businesses in a year’s time.”

— WSJ Europe publisher Andrew Langhoff said it’s merely a “myth” that WSJ.com subscribers expense the bill to their company’s credit card – internal research suggests only a minority do so, he said.

— And Reed Business Information MD Dominic Feltham, another with a fine roster of specialist titles, explained: “Too much nice-to-have fluffy information is just not going to cut it. For general information, I don’t see it working at all.”

But, while it’s clear that a price can be put on such must-have info, none of the panelists were able to offer guidance to the majority of publishers attending, who publish neither business nor business-to-business content and which are currently examining their portfolios for chargeable content that may be lurking in their sport, politics, celeb and other general categories.

Barely a mention of readers’ clubs (Guardian, Times) and added-value opportunities beyond the one-dimensional paywall. And was it just me, or was the paid content topic met somewhat lethargically by publishers even on the sidelines of the conference? There was no enthusiasm that such a strategy is an exciting, can-do options; more a necessity of the times…

The very such exec first I met during the morning admitted: “We are just trying to figure out what to do really.” One senses that all her peers are in the same boat.

Back on the panel, Grimshaw rallied: “Publishers should be looking forward to a very bright future where they look forward to leaving behind the enormous costs of printing newspapers, which are eyewatering.”

And he tried to dig a little deeper. “A huge chunk of unique users are from people who turn up, look at one page and never go back – that, to me, is not an audience,” he said. “It’s the people who register who are important.

“That might be only a fraction of your audience, but they are the people who will drive real value. There are really only a couple of million people online who we want to address.”

But the industry as a whole seems uncertain about the models for, and viability of, charging…