Mac Musings

The Future of Free Web Content

Daniel Knight - 2001.11.16

Content wants to be free

The World Wide Web was conceived as a way to freely exchange information among researchers. HTML, the markup language of the Web, was designed to describe data, not necessarily make a pretty page.

We've come a long way, baby. The Web grew beyond research as businesses created an online presence and retailers created online stores. They were more than willing to pay for ad links, which turned a lot of hobby sites into small businesses themselves. At the peak of the dot-com explosion, businesses that were 100% online came to prominence - and many of them were lost in the dot-com meltdown.

The worst is past, but the face of the Web has been forever changed. Bad business models destroyed some businesses, which in turn reduced the value of online ad space, which thence undermined other businesses. The failures were at a peak in early 2001 and leveled off by summer, but the fallout is still with us.

A year ago, Low End Mac was serving 16-17,000 pages per day and taking in three, four, even five-thousand dollars a month. Today, we average 25-27,000 pages per day. We took in about $2,200 in October - including retail sales.

There's no such thing as a free lunch

It costs about $3,000 a month to run Cobweb Publishing. That includes wages,* hosting fees, paying writers, ISP charges, employment taxes, insurance, and office supplies. We've trimmed that by about 10% since last summer and keep trimming, but when income doesn't meet budgeted expenses, the only place that gives is my paycheck - so I'm behind several paychecks again and working part-time in a local camera store to help make ends meet.

The harsh reality is that ad income and affiliate fees are no longer sufficient to keep the business afloat. We've increased traffic 50% over last year, yet our income is half what it was in late 2000.

We've looked at other models. Micropayments show promise, but visitors don't want to be "nickeled and dimed" to death at a penny a page. Subscriptions are promising - maybe 50¢ a week to view Low End Mac without ads - but we have no idea when we'll be able to offer them. Donations are very nice, and we've received well over $2,000 in donations this year, but we don't want to be constantly asking for money.

At Low End Mac, we're committed to making our content available for free to anyone who wants to access it. If we do implement a micropay system - and that's something we're looking into - it won't replace ads. Instead, we'll set it up as a way site visitors can pay a nickel, dime, quarter, dollar, or whatever for the value they've already received from the site.

Likewise, if we set up a subscription program, that doesn't mean Low End Mac will become a subscriber-only site or that any content will be unavailable to those who don't subscribe. The benefit of subscribing will be faster downloads, since the ads tend to take a lot longer to load than the rest of the page.

Subscription Danger

The Pew report on the Internet & American Life notes that when sites become subscriber-only, about 86% of visitors stop visiting the site. Only 12% are willing to pay for access. And the 12% figure may be high, since users who report paying may do so at some sites and decline to do so at others.

We're philosophically opposed to charging for content, and we certainly don't want 80-90% of the visitors to our site to stop coming, so we'll never go to a subscriber-only model or charge people to read archived articles (as many online newspapers are now doing). But we need to look at our options.

Based on the Pew study, at most 12% of you would pay to access Low End Mac. With an average of 10-12,000 unique IP addresses (which may not equate with unique visitors) per day, 50-55,000 per week, and 180-200,000 per month, 12% could translate into as few as 1,200 subscribers or as many as 24,000.

That translates into anywhere between $2,400 and $48,000 per month at 50¢ per week per subscriber. Just thinking aloud here, but even on the low end that exceeds site income for October. No ads to sell. No affiliate links to push. And probably no future.

Think about it: If you charge people to access your site, how are they going to know it's worth the investment in the first place? Going to a 100% subscriber base with no free content would destroy almost any site.

The Future of Low End Mac

I've said it before and I say it again: Low End Mac is not going away. If I have to take a full-time job in addition to running LEM, I'll keep the site up. But I'd rather keep it going with lots of writers and plenty of new content, as we've done for the past few years.

We already have a mechanism in place for accepting donations - every dollar helps - and I am looking at a micropay system that will accept donations of under a dollar without eating up the whole contribution in overhead. Until we have a viable subscription program in place, we will gladly accept donations. And we'll also try not to beg for them.

I hope we'll be able to offer a subscription option by the end of the year. I'm hoping for something on the order of 50¢ per week (probably $2 for 28 days) or $24 per year - far less than a subscription to Macworld, Mac Home, or MacAddict - for fresh daily content.

Once that's in place, we should have no need to solicit further donations. Not that we'd refuse them, but with a subscription program, your money not only supports Low End Mac, it also provides you the tangible benefit of a faster loading, less cluttered, ad free website. And non-subscribers would have the same LEM they've visited for years.

Until then, donations will be greatly appreciated.

* For the record, based on last year's stellar income, I'd hoped to easily match what I earned in my old job. Instead, I'm earning about 60% that much - when I can afford to pay myself.