Last Thursday, Sports Illustrated launched its free iPad app. It's comprised of a handful of news and scores -- ultimately less content than what's available on SI.com -- and the option to buy a digital copy of the full magazine for $4.99 each. Time Inc.'s division of paid versus free content follows a trend that appears to be becoming more prominent in the content economy: short experiences are free; longer, more in-depth experiences are paid. The marketplace will ultimately be divided not between digital and traditional, but between long-form and short-form content.
Today, single articles are generally free. Whether it's through a Google News search, a newspaper or magazines Web site, or even the SI app, you can usually read the article you want without paying for it. If one news story is blocked, you can easily find another article on the same topic that satisfies your need to know. Most efforts to charge for this kind of content have failed because the articles are so interchangeable. (Now you may be thinking, what about The Wall Street Journal? True, the Journal online is paid, but how many of those subscriptions are by individual consumers who don't need the paper for work? Not many. That's an example of slightly less interchangeable content and ample expense accounts.) In addition, the experience of visiting a newspaper or magazine online is rarely immersive. It's more about scanning headlines, grabbing the short bits of information you want and then moving on to something else.
Print magazines and newspapers, on the other hand, aren't often free. How are they different? They provide immersive, lengthy experiences. Publications have a beginning, middle and end. They are not closely linked to a competitor's version of the content, pared down to textual headlines like in a Google News feed, or just one small part of the overall experience of surfing the Web. They are standalone, engaging experiences. This inspires readers to commit time and money to them. Full magazines on the iPad, in the form of apps, are showing characteristics of print publications. Unlike their Web site counterparts, the photo quality is brilliant, the design is beautiful and readers can only peruse one at a time. And they've also been able to command a premium. GQ magazine's app with the current issue's content goes for $2.99 a pop -- repeat buyers can get new issues or back issues for $1.99 each. Vanity Fair's app sells for $4.99 for the first issue, $3.99 each additional issue. Wired magazine's iPad app sells for $4.99. And consumers seem willing to shell out the dough. In the first 24 hours of Wired's app release, it sold 24,000 copies. The GQ app for the iPad sold 63,000 copies between November and the end of May.
This short-versus-long paradigm is also surfacing within other forms of media, too. Books, the ultimate long-form media, continue to rely on a successful paid model, whether in digital form on the Kindle, Nook or iPad, or on the bookshelf. Ad-supported books have never been an issue, and short stories and articles are usually grouped and sold in collections.
The same thing goes for video. Movies, when not pirated, have always held on to the pay-for-content model. Consumers need to buy or rent them -- even if coming through digital channels like iTunes, Netflix's Watch Instantly or, now, YouTube. There are signs the paid model will extend to full 30- to 60-minute television shows, too. The TV Everywhere endeavor will allow cable TV subscribers to access full-length TV shows online -- notice I said cable TV subscribers. If you don't pay the monthly fee, you don't get the online access. Hulu Plus, a paid subscription version of the popular ad-supported site, is also in the pipeline and could cut down on the number of free shows currently available. After all, Hulu is now owned by Comcast. TV shows on iTunes and Amazon have always come at a price, currently around $2.99. It's easy to imagine an environment where the only ad-supported, aka free, TV online is a few current broadcast television shows.
Short-form video, on the other hand, is thriving as free content. Sites like FunnyorDie.com, short YouTube videos, and blip.tv will continue to live off of ad sales as they do now. This works for them because they don't often produce long, cost-intensive, mainstream-media-quality content. Short-form video producers and site owners can't afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on program development, talent, and all the other things that go into mainstream video production. Short-form must rely on user generated content, freelance and other low-cost production solutions. Their advertising model gives them no choice. This also rings true for text and video content factories like Demand Media, Associated Content and AOL's Seed.
This suggests that the emerging split between short-form and long-form content will also result in a talent split as well. Short-form content that's created in droves and forced to rely on advertising revenue as well as long-tail demographics must rely on a low-cost production model to survive. The text needs to be written by throngs of semi-professional journalists. Actors in short videos need to accept little to no payment. (Even though there are celebrities in many short form videos, they don't appear to support themselves on the endeavor.) Long-form content, on the other hand, with the luxury of paid revenue streams can continue to have high production values driven by professional creatives.
In the end, it all comes down to quality time. The better and longer the experience, the more likely consumers will be to pay for it -- regardless of whether it's found online, on an iPad or at the corner newsstand.