Will anyone pay for content?

The online arm of John Fairfax Holdings, f2 needs to move to fee-for-content from content-for-free in order to boost revenues. The AFR's white-collar demographics make it the logical choice to act as a test bed for finding a more revenue-rich online model.

The risk is the wheels could fall off its traffic figures as visitors desert it for free content rivals such as News Ltd's news.com.au.

Between the 2nd and 9th of December, AFR's overall ranking jagged down to 101 from 87, according to stats collected by Sinewave Interactive. However within the Australiian news and media sector its ranking remained relatively static throughout the same period. So the jury is still out on the success of the AFR's manoeuvre as far as web statistics are concerned. Media analysts believe f2 jumped before it was pushed.

The $40 million loss Fairfax posted on its online operations last year made efforts to pump up online revenues inevitable. "They are basically not getting the revenues they thought they would and they're not covering incremental costs," said one analyst. The AFR's demographics show it has a higher percentage of internet users and professionals among its readers, which made it the obvious choice to be the guinea pig.

One hundred per cent of AFR's print edition is now replicated online however access to 70 per cent of its content is denied to non-subscribers. It is a half-way house approach that puts the AFR in the mainstream of efforts by publishers to find acceptable ways of charging for content. Among major publications, only the Wall Street Journal blocks its entire site to non-subscribers.

"The whole project is an exploration of what customers want," said f2 marketing director Dale McCarthy. Other major Fairfax properties like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will continue to offer free online access although neither puts 100 per cent of its print publication online.

Meanwhile, bits of grit are falling in the gears during the changeover period. Print subscribers to the AFR must use codes for access to online stories barred to casual visitors. However some newsagents have been lax about filling in the required form with the result that their customers have not been issued codes.

Also suffering info-loss are companies for whom newsagents fill daily orders for the AFR but who are not formal subscribers. They've been left in the cold with no entitlement to codes even though they may be paying as much as normal subscribers.

Another revenue source comes from a trial of pure online subscriptions among the AFR's overseas customers for less than the print subscription price of nearly $700. Uptake has been "gratifying" to the point where online-only subscriptions will be offered to Australian residents starting around March, McCarthy said.

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