By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Roger Ebert, Esquire and the paid-versus-free debate

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.

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  1. George Williams

    I agree with you Dan. Why buy any print medium when the main content is available online before or at the same time the print version is available. My wife and I have this discussion regularly because I want to cancel our subscription to the Boston Globe since we can read it online (and I can increase the type size!).

  2. Your idea of a news-publisher generating two different but interdependent products, spanning print and electronics, and designed to drive business to each other, is as good an approach to a new monetizing model as any I’ve heard on the subject. The trick will be in resolving the inevitable conflicts that will arise between the marketing and editorial teams once the underlying complementary editorial paradigm has been established.

  3. BP Myers

    I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps news websites (the Globe comes immediately to mind) ought to let only subscribers comment on their website. So many folks stop by there only to carp about them and to revel in their difficulties.

    Commenting is a privilege that should mean something.

    I would add that should they do this, they should also stop their draconian moderation, as subscribers should have some reassurance that their views would be heard.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Just to clarify, by “print” I don’t mean paper only, but paid electronic editions as well. As you know, magazines are furiously trying to come up with paid products for the iPad and other e-readers. We’ll see how they do.

      @BP: Restricting the community features of a newspaper Web site to those willing to pay is definitely an option. And one thing I would do with the Globe tomorrow (as well as other newspapers) is kill the “Today’s Paper” section of the Web site. I would not remove all (or even most) of the Globe’s content from But to me it makes no sense to package it in exactly the same way as the newspaper. Why offer a perfect substitute? works well as something different from the Globe, even though most Globe content is included in the mix.

  4. Mike Benedict

    Dan, my company has been doing exactly what you propose since 2005. The problem is, advertisers do not necessarily agree.

    As you know, there is tremendous pressure in the ad world to bring down costs. On a weekly basis, we hear something along the lines of “Going forward, we want to do more online,” which really is code for “My boss says cut the ad budget by 50% and this is the only way my pea brain can make it work.”

    Second, there is a new school of advertisers that does not believe anyone reads print anymore. I think that’s a coping mechanism by advertisers that used to spend millions and now have budgets in the tens of thousands, but it’s a very real position and it’s extraordinarily difficult to move advertisers off it. In this case, it doesn’t matter how many print subscribers one has, or how effective the third-party audit or subscriber surveys are, because the advertisers are trying to defend their position, as opposed to, you know, marketing. (Not to mention the value an advertiser places on ad traffic is a fraction of the value that advertiser once placed on print traffic.)

    Third, there is a trend toward putting ad dollars only in products that generate measurable leads or other easily quantified metrics. Again, the mountain of data that says “hits” and “clicks” don’t matter is irrelevant to these ad buyers. Our salespeople are sometimes happy to see our sites hit with bots, because it boosts traffic. Say “bots” to an ad buyer and watch their eyes glaze over.

    I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know. But while I think the concept is appropriate — since I initiated it at our company, I’d better think so! — I also believe long-term success will come down to being able to generate revenue from (almost) all the stakeholders, not just the advertisers.

  5. BP Myers

    “And one thing I would do with the Globe tomorrow (as well as other newspapers) is kill the “Today’s Paper” section of the Web site.”

    I’ve long wondered what that link was for, concluding it was simply there for reference, to confirm (if one was citing something) that an article did indeed appear in the paper that day, as opposed to strictly being web content or something. The one time I’ve used it was for exactly that.

    Love the new “Hot Topics” menu bar and think they do a lot of stuff very well, comment moderation grumble grumble aside grumble grumble.

  6. Dan,

    I don’t know all the ownership particulars, but the Esquire UK site is much better (from a print edition sustainability perspective) than the Esquire US site. The UK site is old school: just a blog that advertises one thing: the print edition. I’m guessing by foregoing display advertising on the web site and making the site sparse (compared to the Esquire US site) it actually supports the print edition better. If the UK site had more than one full time editor and a couple of part time writers I’d be shocked.

    But this is a magazine. I don’t think newspapers can follow that same model.

  7. Mark Phillips

    Sadly, Dan, I don’t think a fine piece of journalism is enough to drive people to pay. In fact, I’m not sure what is enough.

    Holding back the piece only to those who pay, in my opinion, simply would mean fewer people would have read it.

    These are the times in which we’re living.

  8. @Mike: You make a very valid hands-on-experience point, and you’re right, of course, that the advertisers will call the tune; but what if the two different — but overlapping — audiences were carefully calibrated by age & income demographics, with the print version skewing older, and vice versa?

  9. I’ve been struck by how Ebert has so completely and successfully embraced the Web — and assume (as he has alluded online) that this is partly a result of him losing his ability to speak. He clearly still craves the conversation. And the discussion that occurs among his commenters is one of the richest anywhere.

    This may have been discussed in the Esquire piece (I’ve not read it yet), but two things are particuarly striking about his recent online writing. First, his blog posts are increasingly small memoir essays. And feel like a man who knows his time is limited and is finally, wonderfully writing his own story. (It helps that he seems to have an incredible memory.)

    Second, his writing has become increasingly moral. He’s purposely and repeatedly blogged about evolution, and his own faith. But he’s also called out Rush Limbaugh and others. Unlike many major media figures, instead of avoiding conflict to protect his standing, he’s using his own stature to take on major figures, and draw attention to important issues outside his usual beat. It comes across as brave — but maybe it just feels that way because of the lack of others doing the same.

    Ebert was a pal with the great Mike Royko, and he stands as one of the major heirs of Royko in Chicago journalism, in national journalism. It’s easy to miss this because Ebert is — just? — a movie reviewer. The Web has revealed him as a three-dimensional public intellectual in a way that his movie reviews have not.

    I’d not really put this all together until I began paying closer attention to what Ebert was doing after Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner accurately called Ebert the conscience of the Chicago Sun-Times.

  10. Dana Gower

    I think you’ve got it backwards, and Esquire got it exactly right. I can’t tell you how many years it’s been since I’ve read Esquire. I came across the article on the Poynter sight, read the entire thing and then went out and bought the magazine. I felt that any magazine that printed an article this good had to be worth reading. If they had printed just a synopsis, or, worse, a blog about the article, I would probably have skipped the entire thing. I honestly don’t know whether I’ll buy next month’s issue, but I’ll definitely take a look at it.

  11. Good points, Dan, re
    “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.”

    well said. that said: snailpapers.

    it’s a new term i coined as a term of endearment for print newspapers, what do you think? useful? humororus?

    see my zippy1300 blogspot for the inside skinny on snailpapers, Dan, I told Alex Beam about the meme, and i got a song about snailpapers on youtube tonight, soon. titled “I just can’t live (without my daily snailpaper)” and it goes like this in part….

  12. Mike Benedict

    @Art Kane: Your point about the demographics is well-taken. Our own data suggest that, generally, our audience is older (40+), well educated (bachelor’s in science/engineering or higher), and by most standards wealthy (median subscriber annual salary of $85,000+). I’m not sure how this tracks to MSM, but I would guess the latter two are in our case a higher. We do a demographic sort and actually charge different rates depending on whether a subscriber fits the “ideal” (in the advertiser’s perspective) profile. It works for us, but I would be a bit suspect as to whether it would hold for most media outlets.

  13. Mike Benedict

    This is worth a look. Some media are generating positive reaction from the semi-interactive bar codes embedded in print ads.

  14. Dan to Dan, my viral snailpaper song is on YOUTUBE now , going viral as we speaketh, er, typeth, er readeth, er,screeneth. ENJOY. reax and comments welcome. does it work for you? yes no? just a novelty song

    dan bloom in Taiwan, go figure.

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