Trying To Find A Business Model That Works

IMG_1821 - Version 2.jpgLast night’s panel produced by and sponsored by Demand Studios focused on finding a business model for news on the Web but — like most panels of its kind — no real conclusions were reached.

The panel was moderated by BusinessWeek columnist Jon Fine, and featured (in photo from left to right) “rogue girl blogger” Maegan Carberry, NYU professor Jay Rosen, Editor at Large Rachel Sklar and’s Matt Romanoski.

Moderator Fine started the panel off with some scary statics — comparing the amount of ad sales money generated by the New York Times versus the Huffington Post. The Times made over $1 billion in ad revenue last year. he said. How can an online media company compete with that?

Some suggestions were tossed around, including asking readers to pay for content. Sklar suggested that media companies should make it easy for readers to purchase access to information, replicating the “buy” button on or iTunes that is connected to saved credit card information. She also suggested charging for “freemium” or extra content, and said she wouldn’t mind paying a few dollars a month to use Twitter, Flickr or YouTube.

“I wouldn’t mind paying for Twitter because they I would own my Tweets if anything ever went wrong,” she said.

Fine disagreed. He said he doesn’t mind paying for the New York Times print edition, but would refuse to pay for individual articles. When faced with a pay wall, “I would spend 10 minutes trying to get around it, and I think that’s pretty normalized behavior.”

So if pay walls don’t work or aren’t viable, how else to make money on the Web? Carberry suggested using ad networks like she does on her site It’s a pretty traditional way to earn money on the Web these days, and Carberry said that out of all her streams of income, that is where she earns the most. But, like other bloggers trying to establish a brand identity, Carberry frequently posts for free on HuffPo as well.

Sklar, who is using a similar model to HuffPo for columnists at her site (although she edits all the columns unlike HuffPo), said writing for free “can give you more than the money that you earn,” including publicity that can lead to other jobs or things like book deals. And speaking of her model, Sklar said she is offering an “honorarium” to certain columnists to write one column per week, while others are writing for free. But the model is “a complete experiment” for the first three months of Mediaite’s existence, then she will reevaluate. “I am giving them the opportunity to build a column, build a name,” she said. “They can use that to sell a book or [we can] sell ads against it.”

Towards the end of the panel, an audience member got down to brass tacks. “What is the business model?” she asked.

Romanoski said he didn’t have an answer. Nobody at his site is getting paid to do it. It’s not making money, but the overhead costs are low, and many of the staffers came from the Star-Ledger and are living off money they took in a buyout from the paper, he said. “For us, it was a chance to do what we love and still get paid by someone else,” he added. “It was an opportunity for us to try something…We may never have another chance to own our own business, and all the founding members have equity in the business.”

Rosen summed it up nicely. “It’s not impossible” to make money on the Web he said, pointing to some people who have been successful, like Simon Owens. “But not everything is ‘the model.’ Because the notion of ‘the model’ is not real.”

(Photo by Peter Clayton)