Pearson denies FT.com to end free access

But how long can the free content model work on the Web?

Media group Pearson, denied Monday it is planning to charge FT.com users for accessing content.

It insisted that it intends to offer a limited number of "premium paid services" that will complement its existing business coverage -- which will remain free. However, according to the Sunday Times, Pearson's eventual aim is to make only the most basic information free and charge for more in-depth use of the site.

"The Sunday Times story misses the difference between a pure subscription model, and a mode of free content and premium paid services," a Pearson spokesman insisted. He explained that two such paid services are already available.

These are "Ask FT", which lets a user pay the FT's research team to answer business research enquiries, and "FT CareerPoint", which accepts CVs for free but charges a fee for releasing the information.

However, the spokesman refused to rule out the possibility that FT.com might introduce a charge for content in the future.

According to some industry experts, very few content-providing Web sites could make a success of charging their users at the moment. The fact there are so many sources of information on the Web makes it hard for any single organisation to justify a fee, and current technology doesn't allow a company to charge for individual pieces of information.

Rebecca Ulph, analyst at Forrester Research, believes that Pearson may be hoping to emulate the success of rival financial publications such as the Wall Street Journal, whose www.wsj.com charges a subscription fee of $59 (£39) per year -- or less if you also subscribe to the print edition.

"The Wall Street Journal and The Economist are about the only people to have made a success of charging for content, because they both have a very strong brand name and lots of offline sales. The FT is obviously eyeing this market and thinking it's very attractive," she said.

However, Ulph believes that an Internet site can only justify charging for its content if it is providing something unique. "It has to be something people can't get anywhere else. For example, if you're the only company providing real-time share prices, or news of goals in the Premiership [UK football league], then you could justify charging for that," she suggested.

Hugo Dixon, editor and chairman of financial opinion site Breakingviews.com -- which charges users £500 a year for its real-time market information -- is more bullish. "If you've got strong content, you should charge for it," he insisted. Dixon thinks the FT should consider charging its users. "I think the FT could charge for its content, because they've offering strong information," he said.

According to senior analyst at research firm IDC Daniel O'Boyle Kelly, the key to justifying a charge is offering time-critical data. "Companies would love to start charging for their content, because it could be very lucrative to do so. One way would be to say that a certain news story costs so much for the first two hours, and is free after that," he suggested.

While Ulph agrees that the Financial Times is very influential, with a powerful brand, she doubts whether any new dot-com content provider could get away with charging for its content. However, given the difficult market conditions, such Internet companies will have to look for new ways of getting funding.

"Although the online ads market is growing, it's not growing fast enough to support everyone," Ulph explained. She thinks many content providers will look to include e-commerce in their sites, and attempt to syndicate their material in other channels.

BreakingViews.com has already gone down the syndication route, supplying copy to the Industry Standard and the Wall Street Journal. "Some people like to read their news on the Web, others in a newspapers, so you need to distribute content in the format that customers want. Also, multiple distribution of content means more revenue streams," Dixon explained.

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