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Online News Subscriptions Make A Comeback

The Financial Times becomes the latest news site to adopt a partial subscription model.

The Financial Times on Tuesday said it will begin charging subscription fees for users to access certain parts of its Web site, FT.com. It's the latest move in a growing trend of online news sites adopting partial-subscription models.

Starting in May, FT.com users will be able to purchase two subscription levels, $110 or $300 per year, which will give them varying levels of access to content such as special columns, pages devoted to specific industries, and the archives of the newspaper, according to a Financial Times spokesman. "Most of the things that we'll be charging for are new things, not things that you already get for free," he says.

FT.com is only the latest site to adopt such a model; in April of 2001, Webzine Salon.com launched "Salon Premium," which gives subscribers access to certain news and political coverage on the site. Editors have seen more than 36,000 readers sign up in the year since. In early April, news site Slashdot.org started offering subscriptions to ad banner-free content. And as recently as Monday, mergers and acquisitions publication TheDeal.com said it would begin charging for access to certain parts of its site.

Online subscription models aren't a new idea. In the early days of the Web, many online news sites tried to charge for access to content. But they soon discovered that people just weren't willing to pay for a Web site. "It was a different world back then," says Patrick Hurley, senior VP of business operations for Salon. "Everything was free, there were myriad choices, and the streets were going to be paved with gold."

But today, beset by shrinking ad revenue and the need to actually post a profit, Webzines needed a way to revive the idea. Hurley says many news sites are adopting partial subscription models to subsidize their operations without alienating readers who aren't ready to commit dollars. "Users get a sense for your content and what they're missing, plus you keep some content free so the ad team can go out there and sell it," he says. Salon considers the subscription model a rousing success, he says, and credits it with keeping the Webzine alive through rough times.

"I think that there was a fear of charging for subscriptions initially," agrees the FT.com spokesman. "There was a first-mover problem. But Salon was very, very daring, and they've made it more palatable."

What would an online news site have to offer to make you willing to pay for extra content? Tell us about it in the Listening Post discussion forum.

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