--Alan Zisman

Information on the Internet may want to be free
but publications hope online readers will pay

"Information wants to be free."
At least, that's a claim made by some longtime Internet users. It made sense, back when the Internet was mostly limited to universities and government researchers. And even when business started moving onto the Net around 1994 - 95, it had a certain logic (as well as a populist appeal). If you're selling cars or running a bed and breakfast, you want to get the word out about your product as far and wide as possible.

But if your product is information, you may have a problem. In particular, if you're trying to sell a print version of your information, does it make sense to post the same information online for free? Does the Internet set you up to cannibalize your customer base?

Newsweekly Time Magazine, for example, has offered the contents of its U.S. and International editions online for several years (, where Internet readers can check out the new edition every Monday morning -- before it makes it onto the newsstands or arrives in the mail. No pictures, but also no purchase cost and fewer ads.

Not all the big print media are happy with this arrangement, however. The New York Times (, for example, requires registration to access the news. Registration is free to U.S.-based users, but international readers only get 30 days free. After that, their credit cards are billed about $50 a month, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of a subscription.

The Wall Street Journal ( switched from a free service to a subscription-based model. The move cost them much of their online reader base, but they claim to have about 100,000 paying subscribers. After a free two-week trial, it's $70 a year.

Local, smaller publications lack the deep pockets of the big, U.S.-based media. They have fewer resources to subsidize the costs of running a Web site -- especially if it's going to cost them paying readers of the print edition. However, there's that nagging sense that online is the future, and they'd better start preparing now. The trick seems to be managing a delicate balance between free and value-added, paid services.

Business in Vancouver is online, for example, at There, you'll find today's news, the contents of the current issue and the text of some of the features and columns of this week's paper. A useful site, but to get all the content, you have to buy the paper. And subscribers to the print edition get bonuses from the Web site. They can search five years of back issues, and can choose to subscribe to BIV E-mail Direct, getting them all the news before the print edition gets out. It's a compromise between making content available for free, while continuing to provide a reason to get the print edition, preferably by subscription.

Vancouver's Buy & Sell recognized the potential of the Internet early. Its Web site ( encourages free registration and more than 100,000 people have signed up. It offers all the ads in the weekly print edition, but with a catch -- the print edition comes out every Thursday; bargain-hunters know that the best deals are already sold by the weekend. Online, you don't get the ads until Saturday. You want parity with the print readers? Be prepared to pay for the privilege. You can sign up for their Early Access plan for about the same cost as buying the paper at the store.

They've recently come through a bit of a controversy, after changing the model of placing ads. You can phone the paper to place a free ad, but you have to have a lot of patience -- the line is usually busy. If you buy a copy of the paper, you get coupons for three ads. It became popular to place ads over the Net, but the company realized that this was costing sales. As well, it cost the company to accept ads online, not only to set up and maintain the Web site. As well, according to the Buy & Sell's David Delisle, each ad has to be checked to ensure it includes a valid phone number and price, and to try to eliminate obvious fake ads and scams.

As a result, instead of allowing users to post ads for free online, the company began charging a nominal $1.99 for three ads. The change resulted in flames: according to Delisle, the publication received more than 100 intense, angry e-mail messages. Publisher Mike Abbott answered most personally, pointing out the reasons for the policy change.

It seems that the damage control has succeeded -- or at least the firestorm of flames has dropped down. Delisle expects that the Buy & Sell's online edition will continue to grow and make money for the company, while continuing to offer readers free information.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan