Cheaper Than a Bag of Popcorn

Robert Stribley   March 18, 2010
Ebert content kernels for half the price of a movie ticket. (image via Washlander)

“‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”

- Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” March 2009

Since beloved film-critic Roger Ebert lost his voice to thyroid cancer four years ago, he has relied even more heavily on print and the Web to relate to the world at large. In that time, Ebert has increased his blogging, adopted Twitter and a few days ago, he wrote a typically charming blog entry, entitled, “I wonder if this will work.”  In it he detailed his long-time fascination with the practice of monetizing Web content. He then introduced the world to The Ebert Club, through which he intends to make a little dough, while still keeping the reviews available for free to readers.

Ebert says he and longtime colleague Gene Siskel were inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, which included them as an example of the potential power of micropayments, wondering how much money could be made on content if fans coughed up as little as 2 cents to read a review. Siskel and Ebert got their calculators out. Basically, if 3 million people paid 2 cents to read 250 of their reviews, they would be millionaires. Many times over.  A decade or so later, Ebert has brought a similar idea into reality. Rather than requesting micropayments by article, however, Ebert settled on an optional annual fee. People need pay only out of the kindness of their hearts – and a respect for the body of work Ebert has shared over decades. From a look at the comments, people have lined up to pay.

Modest as the man himself, membership in Club Ebert costs only $5 per year and includes access to special pages, a private discussion thread, curated tweets, and a few other forms of content.  He’s aware of the fact that micropayments haven’t met with much success yet. “I don’t have a brilliant new scheme for changing things,” he says, but he knows he’s the most-read movie critic on the Web and he wants to see if that popularity can transfer into currency.

Ebert isn’t the first to monetize a blog, of course, but he may be the first to do so within the context of a prominent newspaper.  His blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, resides on the Chicago Sun- Times Web site, itself a money-making enterprise, presumably battling the intractable “death of print.” Will he be sharing his Club proceeds with the Sun-Times, or are those his to keep?  I don’t know. (In the parlance of his field, Mr. Ebert could not be reached for comment.) But Ebert’s prominence as a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and lovable curmudgeon should guarantee him a measure of success. And if he does succeed, we’ll see if other writers rush to adopt this nested money-making model within the papers which offer them homes.  Their success will clearly be dependent on whether they’re lucky enough to share the broad respect and influence Ebert possesses. His efforts don’t fix a broken model, but they may enable a few select stars to shine.


One Response

  1. alexisb677 says:

    Great article. I used to watch his show. I follow Mr. Ebert on twitter, you never know what he’s going to write. He’s like a good friend that you’ve had for years that you want to keep.


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