Ongo – Media’s Next Failure

A portion of Ongo's Home Page

Ever since the dawn of the Internet newspapers have struggled to find a business plan that will work online. For me, it started in the late ’90s at Business First, where the publisher resisted the idea of putting content online, even though every other media operation was doing it. I was successful in campaigning for a work-related e-mail account, and we got access to the Internet. Eventually.

Today is the launch of a site called Ongo, which for $6.99 will offer you access to some of the top newspapers in the country. You can see s0me of the same stories you see at the papers’ websites, without advertising, and can pick and choose the titles you want (though some will cost you another fee). I got a one-day free pass to look around.

You get the New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post, Financial Times and USA Today for your 7 bucks a month.  What Ongo is offering is simply an aggregation service for news without advertising. The Courier-Journal is one of the 19 papers listed to choose from, as Gannett is an investor. Somehow the Ongo leadership raised $12 million from gullible, desperate news operations like Gannett and the New York Times.

And you don’t get everything in the selected publications. I searched for Maureen Dowd columns, and Ongo give me 3 — all from their publication in the Sacramento Bee.

This column in the Washington Post pokes some holes in the business plan and the Ongo reader experience, which eliminates interactivity (no comments) and wipes out some links, and has problems with its search function. It’s nothing more than an aggregator, though it is different from Google in that it has some humans picking and choosing headlines and displays.

News analysts say that some form of “Pay for Play” is going to have to be created for media properties to survive. But no operation is willing to lose its audience by putting up a pay wall. And Ongo is just an expensive tool for people who want their news aggregated in an easy-to-read format.

I don’t get the logic expressed in this quote from Ongo’s CEO, Alex Kazim: “Are they willing to pay for content? Doubtful. But they would pay for a better experience. Someone is willing to pay $2 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks when they could go to McDonald’s and get it for $1.”

Clueless. We’re lucky if people in America pay attention to the news. They’re not paying for it.

I’d give it about six months.