RealTime IT News

Better Late than Never

TheStreet.com (TSCM) has taken far too long grasping one of the Web's most basic concepts. Content may be king, but free content holds the keys to the kingdom. And the damage inflicted by its ill-advised subscription-based business model may be irreparable. Or as Tom and David Gardner would say, "Most unFoolish."

When brick-and-mortar snails started moving online years ago, the thought of giving away the farm for free was an anathema. But it wasn't long before pioneering players started coming up with alternate revenue streams to make that dream a reality. Before long, if you weren't giving away the product, you had rivals passing you standing still.

It was the first lesson in Net Economics 101, and companies who played hooky that day flunked the final exam. Cheating off your neighbor was in many cases even encouraged, but if you didn't at least show up, you wouldn't walk on graduation day.

Take offline monster brands like New York Times (NYT), Consumer Reports, and The Wall Street Journal. The heavies unveiled Web strategies with offline revenue streams and have stuck to their guns even in the face of overwhelming freebie competition. That's allowed a bevy of nobodies to pull up alongside and steal fistfuls of market share.

I'll single out Consumer Reports just because its online initiative is the most laughable. By nickel and diming consumers for a ridiculous $3.95 per month, the so-called consumer products authority has allowed spring chickens like Epinions.com and BizRate.com to feast on its lunch. By the time the old shoe wakes up and smells the coffee, it'll be a dinosaur in the new Net economy.

Without question, nothing has clobbered TheStreet.com's growth more than its pay-for-play business model. The company has curiously fought tooth and nail to stay true to its roots, but for a newcomer so intimately wed to the Internet, it's shown a head-scratching stubbornness when it comes to shedding its decidedly offline revenue model.

Some make the mistake because they simply don't understand consumer behavior on the information superhighway. Content that might not be worth the Web page it's printed on becomes ten times more valuable when given away free to Net surfers.

As a consumer, there's very little in the way of cyber-content that I would pony up ten bucks a month for. Sure, Jimmy Cramer is good for a nutritious daily dose of financial knee slappers, but one cyber-celebrity can't carry an entire company on his back. At least not one whose bread and butter is pure content.

TheStreet.com desperately hopes it's not too late to pull a rabbit out of its hat, and that goes double for retail investors in its own stock. Unveiling a new pseudo-free Web strategy, the company has been busy digging for revenue streams elsewhere.

So far the upstart announced plans to reel in BiGFiSH Management, a firm that puts together those lucrative conventions and tradeshow cash cows. The idea is to market conference events under TheStreet.com brand name. Problem is, how much is that really worth these days? According to some industry analysts, not much.

Next on tap is a new investment book from TheStreet. But unlike you'd expect, it won't come courtesy of Cramer's always entertaining gray matter. He's busy with side projects that range from his hedge fund to penning columns for a gaggle of offline media outlets.

So what's with the dog and pony show? The Fool's Gardners have been turning out books for years,