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With media companies thinning out their newsrooms, struggling to stem revenue losses and worrying about the plausibility of subsisting on dwindling ad revenue online, there's been a lot of talk over the past few months about charging for content.

The free versus paid debate was at the forefront of discussion on the first day of ad:tech in New York this week. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, showed his cards early in the day, opening the event with a talk where he put his money with Rupert Murdoch when it comes to making customers pay for media content online:

"In order to make traditional models viable... you have to plumb where people are willing to pay for content."

Sorrell seems bullish on consumers paying varying rates for content of varying quality, and despite predicting a winnowing of content suppliers online, is confident that media brands will need to charge to sustain the quality of their content. It's a theory that found root later in the day as well.

Paul Jelinek, A&E's SVP of digital media thinks the dual revenue model being floated by the impending TV Everywhere project will been seen more commonly. With TV Everywhere, cable companies are planning to offer free online video streaming of cable content to retain and buoy subscrptions to their offline contant. The key, according to Jelinek is to "defend and protect your core business. And over time it will lead to other incremental opportnities."

Conde Nast Digital's Josh Stinchcomb thinks the key to charging for digital media lies in the mobile market. "It's tough in the web space because we've established a precedent that content is free...I do think consumers will pay for good content, but if they're trained not to that makes it harder."

In mobile, where the relationship has not been so clearly defined, he sees more room for charging for content. To that end, Conde Nast is looking for ways to deliver content, like their new GQ iPhone app launching next week that will give viewers the option to purchase magazine content that will be included in the company's subscription numbers.

But there will be no silver bullet. Conde Nast for one is launching varyious new tools and applications that it can charge for. Says Stinchcomb: "We're going to need multiple streams of revenue."

Many attendees at ad:tech this year object to the idea that it is an either decision when it comes to charging for free content or not. There's been a lot of talk about freemium content and sites that will have free access to some content and charge for other pieces of information and delivery options.

As Bruce Rogers, Forbes' VP of marketing, put it, it will be awhile until we find the right model:

"There's going to be a lot experimentation, there just has to be."

Meghan Keane

Published 4 November, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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