The end of free news content as we know it?

Moving further towards its more commercial competitors, readers of Guardian Unlimited are now required to register before they can access its online Media section.

The Guardian was at pains to point out that the reason for the move was to keep all content free.

Emily Bell, Editor in Chief, readily admits that the decsions was purely advertising department-led, as they don’t yet know who the Media Guardian readers actually are ("It could be 50 per cent students for all we know").

The fact of the matter is, providing more information about readers to advertisers means more money and a greater chance of "holding out against charging" for the actual content.

It will, however, charge annual subscriptions for its email digests as well as for crosswords, an ad-free version of the site and a new digital facsimile service.

The email digests will cost £12.50 a year, crosswords £25 a year, an ad-free version £20 a year and the digital version of the Guardian £98.57 a year or £10 a month.

Until the end of July, all have introductory 20 per cent discounts.

Simon Waldman, the Guardian director of digital publishing, said the move was a first step into understanding the market for paid-for content.

"When it comes to newspapers on the Web, people want two things; a live up-to-minute extension of the paper, and a replica of the newspaper."

The digital replica of the paper will be available in a few weeks. Thumbnails of pages will be visible which when you click on them will bring up a jpeg image of individual stories.

The decision to introduce charges is a clear shift in the Guardian's online philosophy.

The newspaper is in the unique position of being owned and run by a trust and so has been protected from the worst aspects of competitive pressure and shareholders.

This has enabled it to invest heavily in its online services and as a result it has online readership of 7.3 million - by far the largest for UK newspapers.

This is also why its move to charging for content is such a landmark in online news.

The move will, of course, have The Guardian’s competitors swinging from the rafters with joy. They now have far more chance of regaining some of the market.

Plus, it's one more step along the road to online advertsing heaven - wide acceptance of paid-for content.

Sources: BBC Online, Guardian Unlimited, The Register

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