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Roger Ebert Makes Pay Play: The Ebert Club

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Roger Ebert thrives on the web. Now he’d like to get paid for it but not by blocking access to the site or its 10,000-review archive. Instead the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic — a master blogger and tweeter — is going the value-added route, launching The Ebert Club: annual subscriptions $4.99 through the end of March, $5.00 as of April 1.

Call them friends with benefits including a private discussion thread; quick links to his free-standing “special pages for Twitter” and occasional members-only pages; select tweets from his prolific @ebertchicago; advance notice of Eberfest tickets; and more. The list includes “helping enormously to support this web site” — which may sound whimsical but could be the biggest “benefit” of all for some. The price is less than a movie ticket, small enough to be an impulse buy and large enough to possibly create some meaningful income without creating a lot of extra work for Ebert. (Heck, I just stopped writing long enough to sign up.)

Ebert’s explanation and introduction to the club doubles as a survey of paid content models. He recalls being used by Nicholas Negroponte in the 90s as an example, along with Gene Siskel, of how micropayments might work at two cents for two reviews. It would take 250 micropayments to make the same $5 Ebert is charging now.

He writes: “As you know, micropayments went nowhere. In 2009 Google (NSDQ: GOOG) unveiled a plan to run them through Google Checkout. We will see. The web that we surf every day is not paying for itself, and we sure as hell aren’t paying for it. You read me for free, and I read everybody else for free. This is not news. To save you the bother of reading to the end of this entry, I don’t have a brilliant new scheme for changing things.”

Despite his prominence and influence, Ebert doesn’t get big Hollywood money either. “Yes, I have ads. Quite a few over the course of a year. Distributors who actually open good films (you know the kind I mean) have been kind to me. But have I run a single ad this year from an Oscar Season campaign? I believe not.”

If micropayments and advertising aren’t the answer and a pay wall is out of the question, that leaves adding value for users: “Keep the site free for everybody, and find out how many readers might be willing to pay a little extra for an additional resource.” Ebert would have to hit it very big for this to make major money; then again, he launched the club the same week he was on Oprah so you never know. Longtime reader Marie Haws will oversee the newsletter; she should have a good grasp on what adds value to the Ebert experience.

For those considering similar models, read the comments from Ebert’s fans here and towards the bottom here. Very educational.