Decanter goes “premium”–and fully online

Decanter “Premium”. I hadn’t really thought much about it until Richard Hemming made mention of it on his site. You see, Decanter.com has introduced a new “Premium” option which is in essence, a paywall making use of the rather interesting piano.io startup that allows easy implementation of such things.

I’m of an age that remembers when everything was unleashed upon the internet for free, yes, “as in beer” (have never gotten that phrase). If a startup were to actually charge for something they’d be laughed out of existence while everyone else was giving it away for free, in addition to bribing people with t-shirts and phat, bottomless-cocktail launch parties. This of course, didn’t last. I know as I lived through two crashes in San Francisco and left before having the pleasure of riding out the next.

Now as I pick amongst the rocks for coins and lost baubles in a career otherwise known as writing, I hardly even notice when a publication has started putting their premium content behind a pay section. In fact, I readily applaud it, even if it’s an article I’d really like to have read for free. Giving it all away was simply not profitable and ad revenue online hasn’t ever caught up with print for the simple fact that print ads were all fluff, bluster, and simply not worth the old money that was paid for them.

As I write for Decanter, I’ve been noticing a great sweep of changes over the last year. I’m not sure if Sarah Kemp’s stepping down at Managing Director was in any way involved, but I suspect that it was more a matter that Decanter has a solid brand and their website wasn’t doing much to capitalize on it. This certainly wasn’t Sarah’s failing nor anyone else at the top as it’s just really tricky to have a reliable business model online that doesn’t revolve around ads as shown by the fact the two biggest online money makers right now, Facebook & Google, derive it all from ad revenue.

For a wine publication, this is even trickier as wine advertising in general, well, sucks. I am completely blind to photos of bottles draped in a billowing curtain or ensconced in a dusty cellar. That’s what wine ads pretty much all consist of in print magazines and there’s no way that’s going to be spicy and interesting in an online world–it wasn’t in print but we just pretended like it was as long as people paid the rates.

So how do you make money? Via your content and the only way to do this is to protect it and make people pay for it just like they would with having a magazine subscription. This isn’t Decanter’s only revenue stream as any and all of us in the wine world have a stack of name badges in our pockets to balance the books in the end.

Despite what I’ve been told in that Decanter is now officially, “digital first” (which is a massive shift for a venerable print publication) the real truth is that they’re “awards first” given that the bulk of their revenue arrives from the annual awards they do. But, it’s very much the case they still need a quality publication to back up why winemakers should submit to their awards when it seems like every other week a new “XXXX International Wine Awards” has popped up. Going online fills that need as it’s still the same content as the magazine and putting it behind a paywall gives it worth plus makes it possible in some degree to keep publishing it.

The greater issue in all of this isn’t to paywall or not to paywall but more the fact that magazines have to wean themselves off the ad revenue of the past because in reality, it’s just not there anymore.