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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 01/25/2011

A first read of Ongo: ad-free news for a price

By Rob Pegoraro

You can now pay to read my column without any ads attached--but the Post won't be sending you the bill. Instead, a new, Post-backed site called Ongo hopes to charge users $6.99 a month for ad-free access to this paper's stories and those of USA Today, plus "picks" from the New York Times and "selected content" from the Financial Times, with other papers available on an a la carte basis.

Ongo launched this morning after months of a quiet existence in development, during which its only public statement was a September announcement that it had secured $12 million in funding from the Post Co., the New York Times Co. and Gannett. (Post chief digital officer Vijay Ravindran also sits on its board of directors.)

ongo_front_page.png

Ongo serves up a mashup of stories from those four sources, plus pieces from the Associated Press and others culled from additional content sources. Like Google News, it relies on software to pick its top headlines; unlike Google's algorithm-generated selection of news, Ongo also employs five human editors to oversee things and displays stories in an approximation of a newspaper front page's multiple-column section front.

Ongo's initial source of 17 other publications include such mid-market U.S. newspapers as the Boston Globe, the Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald, the Des Moines Register and the Sacramento Bee, plus the U.K.'s Guardian and one non-newspaper, the Post Co.'s Slate. Executives with the Cupertino, Calif., company said at a briefing Friday that about 90 papers had signed up.

Ongo's signup page says you can add any one of them "for free" to its basic package, but clicking on a few of them reveals extra monthly fees--maxing out at $14.99 for the Globe.

Individual stories appear in a sparse, six-column layout that dynamically adjusts if you shrink or expand the browser window. But in addition to losing much of the visual clutter of the source publication's site--and excluding public comments entirely, which it instead limits to private "clubs" you can create with friends--Ongo also can drop some more traditional elements of news stories.

Links and photos seem to have limited odds of making it over to the site, and interactive elements have no chance at all. Its copy of a Times story about NASA's future has none of the links and only one of the two photos that grace the version on the NYT's site. Ongo's version of a December Post story about Amtrak's Acela Express lacks the original's photo gallery and reader poll. You don't get the original newspaper's fonts either, lending the experience some of the visual monotony of reading a paper's Kindle edition.

Web-only pieces, to judge from sample searches for Post and NYT blog items, don't appear on Ongo at all.

As a click on the Ongo links above will reveal, the site does allow nag-free sharing with the public. A menu allows you to post a link to an Ongo story to Facebook or Twitter or to send one in e-mail, and the recipient won't have to pay up or sign up to read it. If the recipient does sign up, however, you get the next month free.

Ongo has submitted an iPad app to Apple's App Store, but as of 9 a.m. it had yet to surface in a search on an iPad. Recent reports have suggested that Apple will require publishers to bill for subscriptions through its own App Store--which would both require giving up 30 percent of the revenue and also contradict how Apple treats such subscription-required video services as Netflix and Hulu Plus. Ongo also plans iPhone and Android apps.

Ongo's biggest issue, however, looks to be neither content nor cost but a weak search function. It ignores bylines--a query for my last name over the last 30 days reveals only one story, rather than the (yikes!) 62 I wrote--although you can then refine a search by choosing from a menu of byline names. It doesn't factor in column titles at all.

Some print stories just don't appear: Dana Milbank's Outlook essay calling on all of us in the media to stop writing about Sarah Palin during February is nowhere to be found on the site.

Those may be picky objections, but Ongo isn't targeting just any reader. Founder and chief executive Alex Kazim, a veteran of Skype, PayPal, eBay and Apple, said at the Friday meeting that the site aims to interest the 12 percent of online readers who hit more than six news sites a day.

Given all these issues, I sincerely hope nobody labels Ongo as the next digital savior of journalism. It's not. Nor does any such thing exist. The newspaper industry won't get better from one flash of insight or invention, but through a lot of patient experimentation with ways to give our most-interested readers a reason to pay for something beyond a basic product that will have to stay free if we're going to remain part of the greater conversation on the Web.

As such, Ongo could be a good answer to two of the more frequent reader questions in a discussion of the future of news: "I'd pay to read the news online, but why won't you let me?" and, in a slightly less charitable vein, "Can I pay instead of being subjected to all your ads?"

Until now, the Post hasn't had anything to offer people asking those questions. Now it does--even if it's arrived in a first-draft state that could use another run through the typewriter.

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 25, 2011; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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Comments

The Ad Block Plus Firefox plugin is free. Dramatically speeds up page loads too as you are not waiting for the adservers to respond.

Posted by: rogernebel | January 25, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

I have to say I completely agree with rogernebel's comment about AdBlock Plus. I haven't seen an ad for years. Combine it with the NoScript add-on and you can eliminate even annoying Flash ads. Why would anyone pay for ad-free websites?

Posted by: tmiller2009 | January 25, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Serious question for the preceding two commenters: If a Web site shouldn't run ads and shouldn't charge for its content, how should it make money? I'm all for finding new revenue streams (not least if they can flow into my own bank account), so I'd like to see your ideas.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 25, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
I suspect most people read the dead tree Post without noticing the ads. But it's hard to eliminate them from the dead tree version, so no one tries or complains. But online? The more annoying Flash (or video, or blinking) ads there are, the more we try to block them, and less annoying ads get caught in the crossfire.

The solution is to give up targeted ads, and just have them be part of that story's content the way they are in the print edition. This also means that you probably can't charge based on click-throughs, just for the placement itself.


Posted by: wiredog | January 25, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Also, good chance that Shirky was right that few people ever really responded to ads in the print edition, and going web just revealed this. A paywall might be the only solution.

Posted by: wiredog | January 25, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

So I do get rid of the ads, but I get lots less of the content I now get free from most of these sources. I don't think this is the model that will work.

Posted by: jbuchanan2 | January 25, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

So I do get rid of the ads, but I get lots less of the content I now get free from most of these sources. I don't think this is the model that will work.

Posted by: jbuchanan2 | January 25, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

So I do get rid of the ads, but I get lots less of the content I now get free from most of these sources. I don't think this is the model that will work.

Posted by: jbuchanan2 | January 25, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

I was not commenting on whether or not web content providers should have ads or not. Indeed, I buy google adwords for my spouse's books (I will spare you the gratuitous ad). I was commenting on whether or not to pay for not seeing ads. AdBlock allows you to block them if you choose to for free. I pay for ad-free email but may make the leap to the free gmail one day, and where I do see that there are, well, ads. I stopped the dead tree WAPO years ago for green reasons. The larger, more important question for me is what is the appropriate revenue model for a large news organization like WAPO? How can they monetize news reporting? I certainly agree that there is an expectation for revenue based on the value added from news reporting, and that the expectation is not misplaced. I just don't like to see the ads and I'm not willing to pay for ad-free content from WAPO, NYTIMES, or WSJ. But that's me, probably a lot of mid-western good old cheapness emerging. Remember the line in the Cohen Brother's Fargo movie that went more or less ~ "was the meal affordable?" - that's me.

Posted by: rogernebel | January 26, 2011 9:04 AM | Report abuse

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