Busman's Holiday
The Tin Cup Syndrome
by Steve Wood
February 11, 2002

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I really wish I were describing the so-so Kevin Kostner flick, The Tin Cup, but this one has to be about the current surge of online panhandling by previously free Macintosh web sites. While writing a daily update for my "smash hit" Educators' News site, I found myself mentally adding up what it would cost me today to surf many of my favorite Mac web sites ad-free or without content restriction. I've been reporting fee-based developments with some dismay on EdNews since MacFixIt Pro was announced several weeks ago.

That announcement seemed to open the floodgates to other sites requesting fees, usually for viewing their sites without any ads. The driving force of all of the new ad-free subscription requests may really have been the result of BackBeat Media offering webmasters a tool for efficiently collecting such fees.

Following the MacFixIt Pro announcement, several BackBeat Media associated sites announced subscription-based ad-free services the next week. As I noted in an Educators' News posting, of the eleven sites earning the Best of the Mac Web Award in Dan Knight's most recent (11/2001) Best of the Mac Web Survey, three of the top four rated sites have now developed some form of subscription service to increase their revenues. While number one rated As the Apple Turns continues to use banner ads and T-shirt sales for support, second ranked Version Tracker has long had their TechTrackerPro update application and fee-based web page. Third ranked MacFixIt, with their announced MacFixIt Pro subscription, is the only recipient of the Best of the Mac Web Award to limit content to readers based on fee payment. Fourth ranked MacSurfer's Headline News, of course, now has their ad-free page offer. Ninth ranked Low End Mac also offers an ad-free subscription program.

Low End Mac's publisher, Dan Knight, has consistently been open about his site's revenue crash and again last weekend discussed the subscription decision in If They Come, Will We Bill Them? Dan's posting was in response to a Dean Browell column, If We Bill Them, Will They Come? Bob McCormick also discussed the whole fee vs. free situation recently in his MyMacOnline column, Is the Mac Web Selling Its Soul?

Dan clearly points out the reality for subscription-based content sites, saying:

But if we charged for access, most of our visitors would go to EveryMac, Applelinks, Mac Opinion, and other sites offering useful technical information and/or editorial content.

He also points out what may be the defining problem in the free vs. fee site content discussion: "Unlike...many hobbyist sites, we don't run Low End Mac as a spare time operation...This is my livelihood." Mac users may soon have to decide whether they're willing to pay for content or to stay with the long-standing practice of Mac sites produced by folks working day jobs and moonlighting on the Mac web.

As a Mac user, as opposed to a minor Mac site webmaster, I find every one of the sites involved to be of good quality and something I'd like to retain as sources of information. As Dan indicated in his column, almost every Mac site mentioned would wither and die and be quickly replaced by a free site if they seriously limited access to their content. (Yeah, I think MacFixIt has cut its own throat with the content-limiting MacFixIt Pro.)

As a minor Mac site webmaster, as opposed to being an everyday Mac site user, I know that I blew my November site proceeds on a couple of Tootsie Roll Pops. While December was a dreadful month for sales and I actually pulled all the ads for two weeks from the daily postings, January was a really hot month for mathdittos2.com. I think I may go to McDonald's for a small sandwich and a Coke with those proceeds! Er, maybe just a Coke.

I'm not sure the various webmasters of the fee-based sites have thought beyond a solution for their site(s) when going to the fee-based system. While a favorite site might receive support from a Mac user here and there, I doubt many Mac users will be subscribing to multiple sites. That's unfortunate for the sites involved, as they apparently see donations and/or subscriptions as a viable method for increasing site revenues over banners, other ads, site store sales, and affiliate ad programs.

When I took a look at some of the sites I frequently have visited in the past, I was taken aback at the total fees required to access all content or to surf ad-free.

  • MacFixIt Pro $24.95 annually to access archives over two days old -- daily content, previous day's content, download library, and forums remain free access
  • MacSurfer's Headline News $30 annually for ad-free content
  • Low End Mac $24.95 annually for ad-free content -- possible "special subscriber-only home page with preview articles and special deals on LEM merchandise in the future"
  • Mac Observer $19.95 annually for ad-free content
  • TechTracker Pro $49.95 one time fee for application and Pro site access

The total for these Macintosh specific sites comes to $149.80! Fortunately, at this time, only MacFixIt seriously limits access to content without a subscription. Beyond the content limited and ad-free sites, there are other excellent Mac sites that have hung out the tin cup for donations to keep them afloat. They include:

  • Mac OS Rumors "Suggested donation" of $25 includes "Special Editions and Update notices" sent by email -- no content limitations on site
  • MacsOnly No specified amount or special treatment with no limitation on site content

Gene Steinberg recently commented on MacFixIt Pro on Mac Night Owl, "But does this signal the death-knell of the free Internet we've grown to love? Not necessarily. Some sites, such as The Mac Night Owl, will continue to operate on shoestring budgets to avoid the need to charge for content."

MyMacOnline publisher Tim Robertson added this editorial note to the end of a column on the subject:

MyMac.com will never charge its readers a dime to read our content. As one of the longest running Mac websites on the internet today (second only to MacInTouch, I believe) we have stayed committed to our original goal: to provide good, fun, and educational content to Macintosh users free of charge.

While Gene and Tim have written public statements about their intent to avoid any subscription-based model, many other Mac sites continue to operate on a free content basis without any editorial comment on where they are or where they're going on this issue. AppleLinks, the Macintosh News Network, MacInTouch, MacMinute, The MacResource Page, ScienceMan.com, Tidbits, and Workingmac.com all remain subscription and donation-free. I think I saw a posting on MyAppleMenu that indicated they were staying subscription-free as well, but I can't find the reference now (color me red-faced). For now, there won't be any shortage of totally free sites to visit.

Going back to my schizophrenic Mac user vs. Mac webmaster conflict, I'm not sure what I'm going to do about subscription services. I make no secret of the fact that there are some unofficial ties between Educators' News and Low End Mac. Low End's publisher, Dan Knight, and I have traded links and info for years. I worked for him at Low End and with him on the MacTimes News Network.

VersionTracker is one of the main sites I use when hunting new or updated educationally related software. Ditto to MacSurfer's Headline News where I keep track of the latest Mac happenings, and the folks there are always good to run a nice link to my efforts. I've often traded info with MacObserver's Bryan Chaffin and MacsOnly's Bill Fox before publishing a column without any fear of the information being misused in any way. Tim Robertson and I have traded occasional emails about the Mac web in general.

These webmasters are good folks who deserve a buck for their efforts. Yet, despite my close ties with many of them, I've not clicked any "donate" or "subscribe" buttons or links. I sometimes rationalize by thinking, "I've helped them by giving them a link," but I'm not sure a link from Educators' News is going to make or break any site. (I certainly hope not.)

I did recently order a mug and a tote bag from the Low End Mac Store. My tote bag for school was threadbare, but the main reasons for the purchases were to support Dan's site and to irritate the Windows crowd at school:-). (They've started coming to ask me to help them with their PC problems, now. But that's another whole column or column series!)

As I was writing an Educators' News update last week, I realized the links I added for TurboTax and TaxCut were links to Amazon.com's offerings of the products for which I'd receive a small commission if someone clicked and bought, rather than to the publishers' home pages. How ethical or honorable is that? Do we want advertising sneaking into our content and possibly influencing the content offered by the writer? I left the links "as is," under the rational that I often linked to Amazon and others before I was an affiliate. But...I still feel kinda funny about it.

Along with many other Mac and Windows sites, I recently received a request to evaluate a really good new program in the same email that contained an offer to advertise that product on my site. I took a freebie on the program to evaluate and declined the advertising, as I felt doing both constituted a conflict of interest. Since that time, I've noticed that most Mac sites have done one or the other, but not both. Good for them!

One thing we Mac users can do to support Mac sites we value is to simply use the sites' click-through affiliate ads when we're shopping for products. Almost every Mac vendor offers some kind of affiliate program to webmasters such as those on our Affiliate Advertiser page. You should be able to find an ad on one of your favorite Mac sites when you're looking for a desired Mac hardware or software item.

Hey! I use my own site links as a mini-discount if the vendor has a good price on an item! I also get a kick out of placing an ad that might prove somewhat humorous alongside a related news posting or column (See the Tin Cup ad at the top of this column's ad string.).

I really don't have any great foresight into how all of this subscription-based sites versus free sites will turn out. I do think it is way too early in the process for anyone on the Mac web to be limiting any content in any way via a subscription-based content delivery model. Sites such as MacFixIt that do so will probably quickly fade in significance as free sites take over their function. I doubt that the ad-free subscription model will do those sites any longterm good. For now, they'll pick up some desperately needed funding, but as the aggregate for many ad-free sites rises, users will become pretty selective as to whom gets their contributions. Eventually, I think the ad-free model will fail miserably and force those sites to look to the site-killing restricted content model or other options.

It pretty well comes down to the Mac site users voting with their mice and pocketbooks. Some sites will undoubtedly continue as free content providers as their proprietors are able to survive on banner and affiliate ads and are willing to be part-time webmasters. Unfortunately, the Mac web just isn't that big. There aren't enough surfers to support all the good sites adequately, so I expect to see the shakeout of Mac specific sites continue for some time.

I've promised myself that I'd keep publishing Educators' News until it reaches its first anniversary next April. Then I'll have to decide whether I'm willing to devote the many hours necessary to maintain the site for a couple of Tootie Roll Pops a month.

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©2002 Steven L. Wood