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Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Online Business Models

Over the weekend, the tech blogosphere was in a tizzy over a profile of Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo.

While some readers slurped up the content in the piece, titled “The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography,” others seemed more excited by where it was written and published: Business Insider, routinely the home of kitten videos and endless lists of Top 100 slide shows.

For many, finding this piece on Business Insider was like going to a vegetarian restaurant and being served a bloody, rare steak sprinkled with bacon bits.

Nicholas Carlson, the reporter for Business Insider who wrote the profile  â€" which arrived on the Web weighing a hefty 22,000 words â€" said he spent months reporting and writing the article because, in a sense, the readers asked him to.

“We have an advantage of seeing what the readers are interested in by the page views and comments,” Mr. Carlson said in a phone interview. “As soon as Marissa Mayer became C.E.O. last year there was an incredible surge of interest in stories about her.”

But when the piece was published on Sunday, many readers asked why Mr. Carlson did not publish it as an e-book, or even as a physical book, and charge people to read it, rather than simply place it online free as a very long blog post.

“For us, the decision right now is to invest in the property that is this free online thing, where we can create great content and where it’s great for our readers,” Mr. Carlson said. ”It’s also great for our other constituents, which is our advertisers, who are going to be placed next to that great content.”

Henry Blodget, the chief executive and editor of Business Insider, echoed that statement, noting that pushing something online on the Web site is a lot more agreeable than the difficult routines of the traditional publishing industry, even the digital side of it.

This approach is the opposite of that taken by another online publication, NSFWCorp, which was formed by Paul Carr, a blogger and author. NSFWCorp bills itself as The Economist as written by The Daily Show, and generates what Mr. Carr calls “real long-form journalism â€" but with jokes.”

Those jokes and journalism are not free. Mr. Carr decided that rather than throw his content against the Internet and see what sticks, he was going to charge a hefty $3 per month to readers for access to NSFWCorp’s Web site or $7 per month for a newsprint version of the site.

While NSFWCorp has taken some money from investors, subscriptions are helping prop up the reporting and the site employs several seasoned full-time writers.

“We wanted to explore an online business model that allows great journalists to do great work without resorting to slide shows and videos of kittens,” Mr. Carr said. “And we don’t have to worry about what we write. We can offend 10,000 subscribers and still be in business; if we offend one paid advertiser we could be damaged.”

From the outside looking in, it seems that both models are working. But what about the future?

Mr. Carr sees two different types of online publications. Those that rely almost exclusively on support from readers and subscribers, like his $3-per-month Web site, and those outlets that are solely supported by ads, like Business Insider. ”They will both feed each other; there’ll be a nice symbiosis.”

But he still believes that long-form, fully reported journalism will be difficult to create simply based on revenues from advertising. ”The ad rates are so cheap today that you have to get a trillion page views to pay for real journalism, and you can really only do that with kitten videos.”

For now, there are rare outlets like Business Insider that seem to find no problem placing long-form “real” journalism next to kitten videos and Top 100 lists.

It seems that Business Insider made the right choice by choosing not to charge people to read the profile on Ms. Mayer, and instead giving it away online. The article was shared more than 13,000 times on Facebook and 5,500 times on Twitter, all of which helped garner nearly 900,000 page views for the article.

And that’s 900,000 page views that were framed by several online ads.

“I think it’s hard asking people to pay for something,” Mr. Carlson said. “As a writer, I was excited that we went with the free route because then I knew a lot more people were going to be reading what I was writing.”