For those of you paying attention to Oprah (or Twitter) this week, Roger Ebert was on the show to debut his new speaking voice. A series of cancer surgeries have taken his voice, but that hasn’t stopped the storied film critic from plowing ahead with his work. He continues to write — film reviews, a lengthy Twitter feed and plenty of opinion writing online.  And now, the critic is using the increased attention he received this week to launch a new payment structure for his website.

Ebert is the most widely read film critic in the world. And he has parlayed that audience into a vibrant community online at RogerEbert.com. But he doesn’t make much money from that effort. Now, rather than charge viewers to get access his reviews and other content, he’s going with a model that many online businesses are testing out: freemium content.

Viewers that pay a small yearly fee to access The Ebert Club will
get additional news and information from the man himself, as well as better curated access to all things Ebert. For the low annual fee of $4.99 (until the end of March, $5.00 after April 1), members of The Ebert Club will get few additional perks. They’ll have access to Ebert’s free web content — including his archive of reviews — but also special writings and postings from Ebert that are not free, links to interesting things that Ebert and his fans find on the web, and advanced tickets to Ebertfest. Also, club members will receive less information from his Twitter feed @ebertchicago, “winnowed to improve the signal to noise ratio.” As Twitter followers of Ebert know, the man tweets. A lot. Getting less content here will actually be a bonus. 

While Ebert’s monetization plans may not apply to larger media endeavors, his methodology is interesting. For one, he threw out the idea of micropayments. He writes:

“I remember with what glee Gene Siskel and I once pondered [Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital] with its speculation on whether users would pay two cents to read
two of our reviews. Negroponte actually used us as an example. Gene and
I pounded on the office calculator: 250 reviews, times two cents, times
10,000 users, or 50,000 users, or three million users…wow! If three
million people paid two cents for our reviews, there’d be $15 million
for us to split! But, hey, even if 5,000 users paid two cents for half
our reviews, we’d gross $12,500.”

Ebert is not ready to give up access to his worldwide readership that would happen if he puts that content behind a pay wall, however. As he says: “there are lots of other excellent critics on
the web, and everybody knows it.”

But Ebert says that he will pay for some things online — like the New York Times subscription that will be implemented online next year. And like The Times, Ebert has a coterie of loyal followers who feel they gain information from his content that cannot be found elsewhere. Many Times readers said before the pay wall announcement that they would be willing to essentially pay a donation to help sustain quality writing at The Times.

In a way, that is what Ebert is doing here. As The Ebert Club progresses, he will likely find more premium content to add to The Ebert Club. But for now, he is generally charging for simplified information and more complete access to his content.

Many of his fans will use The Ebert Club as a way to show appreciation for his work over the years. Like this one named Muga, who writes: 

“I
didn’t find the added content that you offered through the Ebert Club
especially appealing. However, reading your reviews and journal
enriches my life, so I’m happy to contribute $4.99 to enrich yours.”

Ebert’s freemium model is interesting because he is one of the
many online entities that has a loyal following that hasn’t yet been
capitalized and it will be interesting to see how this works out for him. Letting the “Value add” play out on a small scale with one writer may not be the same as supporting a newsroom of content
creators, but the small fee that he is charging could be a good test case for larger entities trying to figure out what to charge for online.

Image: RogerEbert.com