Just saw a Wall Street Journal article that says that Slate is gonna continue to keep their content free and try to subsist on advertising (they claim advertisers are beginning to be willing to pay enough for online ads again, or maybe that advertisers will soon begin to be willing to pay enough for online ads again). (Oh, and Slate has given up on trying to get paid subscribers, but I think that happened a while back. They claim 3 million "visitors" a month, but I don't know what they're measuring to get that number.) The article mentioned two interesting statistics in passing:
Salon has 30,000 paying subscribers, who I think are paying $30/year apiece. They'll consider the subscription model a success if/when they reach 100,000 paying subscribers. So they've got something like $900,000 a year in subscriptions. They're of course still not profitable, though a few months back they cut their staff to 60 in an attempt to reduce losses. (At the time, I believe they were commenting that it took ten years for some major print publications to achieve profitability, so they were urging everyone to be patient.)
Meanwhile, WSJ.com has 626,000 paying subscribers. At $60/year (or $30/year for the Web site if you subscribe to the print WSJ as well). That's somewhere between $18 million and $36 million in subscription income. And they're still not profitable either. They're hoping that having cut their staff down to only 200 employees will help bring them to profitability eventually.
What lessons can we learn from these numbers? I don't know, but as always I'm willing to speculate. I think one thing we can learn is that a big enough brand name (and respected-enough content!) can actually bring in tens or even hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to pay for content (before Salon switched, I made several loud comments to the effect that the nobody would subscribe to an online publication, because too many people were used to free content; clearly I was wrong. I'm amazed at 30K subscribers and flabbergasted at 626K), but that even that doesn't ensure profitability. If you can't make a profit when over half a million people are paying to read your publication, all I can say is there's got to be a better model than the subscriber model.
But damned if I know what it might be.
Now I'm curious: can a subscriber tell me whether Salon and/or WSJ.com have ads on their subscriber-only content? One nice thing about having a subscriber base (in a print magazine) is that you can sell those numbers to advertisers, but I'm thinking that online people would be distressed to pay for content and have to look at ads. But I've been plenty wrong about this stuff before.
I probably ought to plug a much smaller-scale subscriber model: Tangent Online asks people to subscribe at a cost of, iIrc, $5/year. If you don't subscribe, you can still read everything they post, three weeks (I think) after it goes up. If you do subscribe, you can read it immediately. They're cool folks, it's a labor of love (nobody's coming close to making significant money off this), and it's one of the very few venues that review short sf. And, I have to admit, partly I like them because (a) they take SH seriously (they've been reviewing us regularly for several months now), and (b) their reviewers often like our stuff. Which I suppose gives me a sort of roundabout vested interest in their success, so keep that in mind as you consider my recommendation.