Salon has continued its sad but predictable downward slide into uselessness for web readers by announcing that virtually all of its original News and Politics content would be published only under their US$30-per-year "Premium" edition. Personally-created web content, in the form of weblogs and so on, will continue to be strong, but as far as major publications go, this is yet more proof that free content on the web is dead.
But this subscription service deal is not the answer. Virtually all the major publishers tried this kind of subscription model about five years ago, and they gave up on it for good reason. The problem with subscription services is that they are useless to most web readers: unless you are an avid Salon reader, you’re not going to shell out $30-per-year to get access to their stories; and if you find a link off someone else’s site to a specific in-depth story that interests you, you can only get to it by paying $30 for a year’s worth of content you mostly don’t give a damn about. By setting up these kind of arbitrary, high-cost barriers to information, publications defeat the purpose of the World Wide Web, which is to let content providers link all over creation and give people access to the whole universe of information. When you put up a $30-per-year wall around your site, you cut up the Web into a bunch of isolated information fiefdoms that are useless to most web users.
Instead, we desperately need a good micropayment scheme for the Internet, which will let people pay a cent, or a hundredth of a cent, for an everyday page; or maybe a nickel or a dime for premium, high-cost content. Content providers will be able to make available individual items for whatever they think that they are worth, and adjust it according to what users will be willing to pay. Subscription services will be an unnecessary relic, and advertisers can be totally cut out of the deal (thank God). As of now, the only reason that content-providers cannot process micropayments is because online payment is controlled by credit cards (or credit-card processors such as PayPal and Amazon), which charge transaction fees that make it virtually impossible to sell anything for less than a dollar, and nobody wants to pay a dollar for each story on Salon. We’re going to need to get creative, and come up with new, transparent, usable, secure payment schemes, but once this is done, it will be so rewarding for the quality of content it will help produce and support that it will be hard to imagine what the web was like before it.