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Paid content, which many online publishers left for dead when advertisers were throwing money at anybody breathing, is back in fashion.

Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Big publishers, such as the New York Times, are revisiting the model. And 'content entrepreneurs' who less than a year ago touted 'free' are now singing 'fee'.

A new startup called Contenture wants to give the latter an easy way to charge for their content.

It's building what it calls an "anti-ad network". The idea is simple: for online publishers who are not capable of charging for their content or who don't want to handle all the details themselves, Contenture will do the work in managing the subscriptions and handling their payments.

Publishers choose which content and features subscribers gain access to. For instance, one publisher may want to restrict content to subscribers only, while another may want to give subscribers access to publish content sans advertising.

There's one more wrinkle: Contenture is a network. It will charge consumers a small monthly fee to access the premium content and features offered by all of the publishers in its network.

It pays publishers a portion of that small monthly fee pro rata based on how many times each subscriber visits the sites in the network.

It's an interesting if not innovative model that's worth a shot but having operated a number of online subscription services over the years, I'm extremely skeptical that it will work.

First, the obvious: the technical skill required to set up a subscription service is not very high. There are off-the-shelf 'scripts' that make doing this easy. As much as I hate to say it, any publisher who is incapable of implementing a subscription system (or who can't afford to do so) probably isn't running the type of property that a viable subscription business will be built upon in the first place.

Second, the economics looks shaky. While the value proposition to the consumer sounds appealing (one subscription, premium access across the network), I don't see how this will benefit publishers.

Even though revenue is shared pro rata, what's in Contenture's interests (a larger network) isn't in its publishers' interests. After all, the more properties in the network, the greater risk of dilution of the revenue share.

Additionally, because the amount generated by each subscriber varies because of the pro rata split, publishers have no real ability to predict revenue month-to-month. Predictable cash flow is one of the most appealing aspects of running a subscription business and Contenture eliminates that.

Contenture's homepage says "We believe websites should make more than 50 cents per thousand visits" which is curious because a number of smaller properties I work with that use nothing but AdSense earn substantially more than that.

Third, publishers should not underestimate the value of 'owning' their subscriber databases. This is the most valuable asset a publisher has and as I said, given the ease with which a subscription service can be implemented, there's no reason to hand over control of a subscription service to a third party.

Finally, Contenture's solution is technically problematic since it's currently based on JavaScript placed on the publisher websites. For obvious reasons, JavaScript is not a reliable means to protect content. Although an API will be available at some point in the future, the need for API integration to get a secure solution defeats one of the Contenture's main selling points: that many publishers don't have the technical skill required to implement their own subscription systems.

All in all, the transition to paid content isn't going to be simple for many online publishers and it's not a model that is available to everyone. Contenture is a decent concept

Not every category of content lends itself to a paid model and creating and sustaining the type of value that enough users will reasonably be willing to pay for to build a viable paid content business is tougher than adding some JavaScript code to a websites.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 May, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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