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Cowles to charge for Media Daily

The company is testing its audience to see if it will pay for the news service, and if so, how much it is willing to spend.

Cowles New Media is attaching a substantial price tag to its Media Daily news site starting April 1, the company confirmed today.

What isn't clear, however, is exactly how much the service will cost.

Cowles posted a notice to visitors without fanfare today that the service will no longer be free starting next month. Unknown to visitors, however, the company has been rotating three different price points on its sign-on page--$99, $149, and $249 for a yearly subscription.

All the price points are high compared to those of other Web properties that have begun charging subscription fees.

"We're testing prices. We haven't determined the price yet," said William Duke, publisher of Media Central. Media Central is the portal site for all Cowles publications, including Media Daily, which reports on the Internet, TV, radio, and publishing industries.

Duke added that he hadn't taken into consideration how people would react when and if they found out that users were being offered three different prices. "If they've already signed up they won't go back to the screen [where the different prices are being posted]."

He also noted that the company is not yet sure it wants to charge anything at all. "There is a strong chance we may not do it at all, depending on the response."

Like many online sites, Media Daily wants to tap revenue streams other than advertising. Although it is testing three prices to see to how much readers will pay, analysts say it is hard enough to get people to pay anything, let alone prices such as $249.

"They would maybe have a shot at around $50 or under per year," said Jim Nail, a senior analyst in media and technology strategies for Forrester Research.

"The fact is that there is so much information on the Web that it is going to be hard for anyone to charge," he added. "When people sit down. they're going to say, 'Should I pay $149 for this per year when I can go to My Yahoo or My Excite and set up a free news filtering service to get the news I need?'"

The Wall Street Journal, which has a huge subscriber base for its print edition, has been able to charge $50 per year or $29 for those with a print subscription, but Nail said the Journal is an exception because "it is a must-read" for most industries nationwide.

In addition, other free online publications that have begun switching to subscription models are relaunching at much lower price points than the fees Cowles is quoting, he said. For example, Microsoft's Slate started taking subscription sign-ups last month at $19.95 per year. That offer ends today.

But Media Daily executives are hopeful that readers will value it enough to pay for access, although Media Central would still be free.

"We have a very targeted, dedicated, loyal audience who use it every day," said Khanh Nguyen, interactive advertising manager for Media Central. "We don't feel it would hinder our traffic too much."