Roger Ebert experiments with web payments by starting The Ebert Club

Film critic Roger Ebert may have lost his voice, but he found it again on the web. In addition to his usual film reviews, Ebert runs a very successful blog, and is an avid Twitter user. Now the critic is looking to monetize his blog — which is apparently not profitable with its current advertising setup — by starting “The Ebert Club”.

For an annual fee of $4.99 ($5.00 after April 1), Ebert will offer his fans a variety of content delivered to their email inbox — including links to recent postings on his blog, and selected Twitter updates. There will also be a private discussion thread for members, which Ebert says will resemble his comment threads and feature a private URL. Members will also have access to “The Web Report” (Ebert’s collection of “unexpected and delightful web discoveries”), other special pages, and will get advance notice of Ebertfest tickets going on sale.

Ebert discusses his exploration of web monetization over the years — from porn, to penny micropayments, to paywalls — in a recent blog post announcing the club. He and former fellow movie-critic Gene Siskel apparently dreamed of the monetization possibilities presented in Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, Being Digital. Negroponte argued that the critics could earn significant amounts by charging users two cents to read their reviews. That idealized vision of micropayments never really came to fruition, but we still see hints of it today with the massive success of inexpensive mobile applications on the iTunes App Store.

He brings up Newsday’s paywall failure as a prime reason for not going behind a paywall completely, and offers the following reason for not running more movie-related ads:

I’m not part of the usual “studio buy” for purposes like that. For the better films, I should be. I am the most-read movie critic on the web. I don’t think the studios give a shit about critics. Their online budgets gravitate toward sites with celeb photos, downloadable wallpaper, gossip,”exclusive” trailers, that stuff. My readers actually buy tickets and go to movies at a much higher rate than the national average; just read one of the comment threads here. But for the big tentpole movies, you know what? The marketing people aren’t looking for readers. They’re looking for buzz.

With the club, Ebert is implementing a solution a bit more realistic than Negroponte’s penny micropayments. It’s more akin to a Paypal tip jar with benefits. Personally, while I’ll probably glance at the special offers made available to club members, the real reason I joined the club is due to my love for Ebert and his work. I want to support him in whatever way I can, and I’m sure there are others who’ve joined for similar reasons.

After he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert underwent multiple surgeries that left him without a voice and a lower jaw. He used a computerized voice over the past few years, and recently unveiled a computer voice that duplicated his own — developed by the text-to-speech company CereProc.


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