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Summary:

In another attempt to undo the Internet, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Gannett chain today launched a new service that they hope will convince readers to pay for their content, even though much of it is already available online for free.

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In what feels like another attempt to put the Internet genie back in the bottle, three traditional media companies — the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Gannett chain, publisher of USA Today — have launched a new service called Ongo that they hope will convince readers to pay for their content, even though much of that content is already available for free. Although it has some interesting features aimed at compensating readers for sharing content, Ongo seems like yet another Hail Mary pass aimed at trying to rewind the clock and impose scarcity on media content, and one that will likely fail just as quickly as others have.

Ongo is run by former eBay and PayPal executive Alex Kazim, and has received $12 million in funding from the NYT, the Washington Post and Gannett. The service charges users $6.99 a month for access to content from its three main backers, as well as content from the Associated Press, the Financial Times and The Guardian. “People are getting their news online in lots of different ways,” Kazim told PaidContent. “This is another option. We believe it recognizes the way people read on the web. They don’t just read one outlet.” If that sounds a lot like Google News to you, you’re not the only one.

Ongo further complicates things by giving readers who pay the $6.99 only the top 20 stories from the New York Times (which appears to be hedging its bets), as well as stories from the Washington Post and USA Today. Readers who want other content will have to pay a la carte for it, which seems needlessly complex and will likely turn many off. The service includes incentives for sharing — subscribers can earn credits by sharing stories with people who then sign up for the service, and bloggers can apparently earn credits, as well as possible cash compensation for linking to Ongo stories — but it’s not clear whether these credits are going to be enough of a carrot to draw many users.

Ongo sounds very similar to a service that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. conglomerate was working on for more than a year, which was code-named Project Alesia (after a famous campaign by Julius Caesar), and was designed to aggregate not just content from the Wall Street Journal, the London Times and other Murdoch papers, but was also working on partnerships with other chains as well to make their content part of the paid service. The project was killed in October, just a few weeks before it was supposed to launch, but not before it had spent a reported $30 million and hired more than 100 staffers. It’s not clear whether Ongo was in development before Alesia, or whether it is a spinoff.

Will some people pay for Ongo? Probably. But no one who knows how to use an RSS reader, or who follows news sources via Twitter or Facebook, is likely to do so, since they are already getting much of that news for free. And even when the New York Times launches its paywall, which it is expected to do soon, people who come in via social media such as Twitter and Facebook and blogs will likely still get access to NYT content — according to comments from NYT chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. — and so will those who only come to the Times website occasionally, since it will be metered access.

The only way something like Ongo would really work is if everyone decided to put their content behind a paywall, and cut off their RSS feeds. Even if that were to happen, other sites or individual users would just log in to the pay service and copy the content and the post it somewhere, which others would then link to. Just like iPad apps and other similar approaches, Ongo is yet another attempt to reimpose the scarcity model that newspapers lost when the web first arrived. Although it might seem presumptuous to condemn something on the day it launches, this latest attempt seems almost certain to fail.

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  1. These media companies simply don’t get it. They look foolish and desperate with all these lame complex gimmicks. Simplicity is key to uptake. These big media conglomerates are ruining the Internet.

    1. they’re not ‘ruining’ the internet. they’re just simply falling off of it, like rodeo clowns.

  2. Spot on blog post! If any of these media titans could figure out how to use the Wayback Machine and look up Pointcast they’d probably save themselves some money. I don’t remember how much VC bucks Pointcast went through in the .com era – but aggregating news is certainly not a new or compelling model!

  3. If a news story is unavailable except by subscription, then I just do not read it. Instead, I search for it elsewhere, and I usually find it. Obituaries once were the worst, but now I don’t run into the problems I did several years ago. Recently, however, I tried to see the article authored by my former father-in-law from 60 years ago. I can’t because I am not a member of JAMA. Why do these people believe they can make a profit by walling off published articles that, in a pinch, can be accessed at a library?

  4. It all depends on where they get their content!

    If it is resourced from their own reporters great – especially if it is exclusive.

    However, if it is a repeat of what we get from Reuters or Associated Press (aka NPR News), BBC, Al Jazeria etc, then it is plagiarism and copyright infringement.

    So in a nutshell – it will not work.

    Anyway, these news organizations plagiarize each other and rewrite news feeds anyway, exaggerating here, spinning there, adding fiction with fact, and who would pay for this?

    If it was specific financial trading news or time sensitive information then yes – a fee would be acceptable, but not rehashed news wire feeds.

  5. The last time the NY TIMES pulled this inept stunt, I never had a problem finding alternative sources. As a diarist contributing to a few sites – it not only wasn’t a problem for me, I found a few more newspaper sources that I ended up preferring to the TIMES for the sort of content I used them for.

    When the beancounters gave up that last experiment, it took months before my use of the TIMES as source returned to a substantial – though still smaller – portion of previous.

    Not that they couldn’t have come up with a better plan. Or someone could have shown them how to come up with a better plan. But, they didn’t.

    As pretty much everyone already agrees – they just don’t get the Web.

  6. How has this received $12m in funding? That’s absurd. They could fund 30 really interesting technology start ups for that. People who are innovating, and creating something new.

    This is hilarious.

    As someone once said, it’s difficult to get someone to understand something, when his job depends on him not understanding it.

    The irony is, everyone’s job depends on them understanding it, and soon.

  7. ~ Why should people PAY “Ongo” or any other online media company, to be spyed upon (unless Ongo can guarantee secrecy / privacy) which they can’t do……

  8. It’s interesting to me that this story is posted on a blog with it’s own “Walled Garden” I followed one interesting link and was invited to subscribe to “GigaOM Pro” to read the full article. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Will not be following this path again.

  9. This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ new rivals, Ongo’s aggregation play, and Demand Media makes a splash » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] Mathew Ingram had the harshest criticism, arguing that no one who knows how to use RSS will have any reason to use Ongo. “Ongo seems [...]

  10. Newspapers Hope Readers Will Throw Money Over the Wall: Tech News and Analysis « Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    [...] solve. At best, it is a stop-gap measure that might slow their decline somewhat, and an ultimately futile attempt to reimpose scarcity on their content in an age when the supply of free content is virtually unlimited, thanks in large [...]

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