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about Asia Buzz  |  more Asia Buzz

Asia Buzz: Should the Net Be Free?
Web heads want it all -- for nothing
By ERIC ELLIS

November 30, 2000
Web posted at 3:40 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:40 a.m. EDT


Original content, on-line. Everyone agrees the Web's got to have it. But everyone also seems adamant they won't pay for it. The Net's free, they bleat. It's a basic human right up there with shelter, food and, depending where you live, democracy and freedom of speech. Don't tax it, charge for it or ban it, goes the libertarian cry of the Nerdistans.

But where geeky disbelief gets suspended is the part where the argument goes that generating content costs money. It takes skill and time. And how quick are the critics to pan websites that simply slap up recycled content from print providers? Web heads want it all -- for nothing.

 INTERACTIVE  
Ticked off at Asia Buzz? Turned on? Talk back to TIME
 
Look at Yahoo!, they cry. It has oodles of content and it's free. That's half- true. Yahoo has arguably perpetrated one of the business world's biggest confidence tricks. It claims it is a content provider -- and it is, sort of. But Yahoo doesn't have a massive newsroom. It doesn't employ teams of skilled writers and editors to finesse pearls of wisdom. It expects others to do that. Then it expects those others to mostly give those pearls away to Yahoo! in exchange for the Web traffic, the highest in Net Land, that Yahoo generates. And as long as people believe Yahoo! is the benchmark, Yahoo! will continue to "own" the Net.

     ASIA BUZZ

Asia Buzz: Those Were the Days
Hype doesn't sell. Results do
- Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Asia Buzz: Hold the Front Page
Comedians are having a field day over the U.S. election
- Monday, November 27, 2000

Culture on Demand: Giving Thanks
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- Friday, November 24, 2000

Letter from Japan: Murky Politics
Expect to hear more about Japan's involvement with "Peruvian" Alberto Fujimori
- Friday, November 24, 2000

Asia Buzz: Sex in the Lion City
Digital technology poses problems for countries like Singapore
- Thursday, November 23, 2000

Asia Buzz: Traffic Jam
A crash on the information superhighway sends telcos scrambling
- Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Asia Buzz: The Week That Wasn't
A stunned world awaits the U.S. election result
- Monday, November 20, 2000

   ASIAWEEK
Intelligence
The story behind today's news from the editors of Asiaweek

But a crunch is coming. In fact it's already arrived. Net-oriented content companies are running out of money and no one wants to put any more in to keep them going. And pure content plays are the business Web's worst performers. That's a problem for Yahoo!, which thrives on getting its content for next to nothing. The market today is not as impressed with huge Yahoo-like, page-view statistics as it once was. The advertising model's not generating sufficient income to keep content companies alive, no matter how worthy their output.

Traditional content practitioners -- they used to be called journalists and editors -- who migrated to the Web, are wandering back again to where they are comfortable: their old off-line homes. They're much more reassured knowing that there will be a tomorrow. And comfortable with working with fellow travelers who value content for the value of what it says, and not as a commodity. I should know. I'm one of them. For much of this year, I viewed the other side. And it wasn't pretty. I had some fun. I believe we did some worthy things, and readers generally liked what they read. But I couldn't see a long-term future in it...and it had little to do with the tech stock market downturn.

Something's got to give otherwise the Web will go backwards. More and more content companies are reexamining business plans and launching pay-per-view sites. And they are mostly brand names that have built up trust in the off-line world. Interestingly, this is against the advice of Netheads who briefly had the Old Economy in their thrall while the market was roaring. But with the NASDAQ spluttering, the old empire is striking back and ignoring the pundits.

Paid subscription sites were first tried in the U.S. with new titles Thestreet.com, which aimed to become the Wall Street Journal of the Internet, and Bill Gates' Webzine Slate.com. But as the Web exploded, sites that tried user-pays content quickly found no one was willing to pay for it. Viewsers fell away quicker than Richard Li's share price. Then they changed back. Thestreet.com switched back and forth a few times, but for the last 18 months has been free. Earlier this month, Thestreet.com laid off about half its staff and closed its London-based European site after operating for just four months.

The only content sites that claim to have successfully managed a subscription model website are Wsj.com, the on-line vehicle for the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.com. And they did so because they are trading off trusted, stellar reputations formed over decades off-line.

There's another reason. Despite all the best technology in the world, on-line advertisers can still only make assumptions about who visits websites. Titles like the WSJ and The Economist know their market intimately. They've been massaging them for years, offline. And their wealthy readers have come to trust them. And stay with them. Advertisers like that.

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