Here’s something I don’t think I would have said five, three or even one year ago: the editors at Esquire made a mistake when they posted Chris Jones’ and Ethan Hill’s wonderful profile of movie critic Roger Ebert on their Web site last week. Ebert, as you may know, is slowly dying of cancer* and is writing, literally, like there’s no tomorrow.
We are in the midst of an endless debate over free versus paid content. I generally come down on the side of free Web access. Most news is a commodity, and if you can’t get it from one place, you’ll get it from another.
But the flip side is that when you’ve got something that isn’t a mere commodity, you shouldn’t just give it away. Jones’ story about Ebert, and Hill’s photography, comprise anything but a commodity. This is exclusive, important, heart-breaking, inspirational journalism. And it’s something that Esquire should have used to drive sales of the magazine.
Increasingly I’m coming around to the idea that a newspaper or magazine’s Web site should be different from its print edition. The Web should be about blogs, community, interaction and extra features that aren’t available in print. The print edition should drive traffic to the Web site, and the Web site ought to drive sales of the print edition.
Esquire does offer some online extras with its Ebert story, but it could have offered more (a slide show, a video, a podcast of Jones and Hill talking about the piece) — and less (not the entire story, at least not for a few weeks).
As I look at the Ebert story online, I see just one non-house ad — a banner at the top of the page, currently selling Dockers pants. I’ve read the story, looked at the pictures and have no particular incentive now to buy the magazine. The idea, I think, should be print and online working together. What Esquire has given us is a Web-first approach with the hope that, someday, someone may figure out a business model. How 2005 is that?
*Further thoughts: A Media Nation reader has asked me to rethink my “dying of cancer” construction. I didn’t write it carelessly. The story is replete with references to the limited time Ebert has left (“Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it”), and his health is precarious because of repeated bouts of cancer. Nevertheless, the story also makes it clear that Ebert is, at the moment, cancer-free. Perhaps Ebert will be with us for many years to come. I hope he is.