The case for why publishers should be able to charge for content on the web always revolves around the exceptions that prove the rule, e.g. Consumer Report and WSJ — which, let’s be honest, are the same examples everyone was using back in 1998. The problem with paid content on the web isn’t that it’s not possible — it’s that it’s HARD to do, because it requires that the content not be a commodity — and content not being a commodity typically means it’s not available anywhere else for free. And the web has made free content ubiquitous.

Richard Perez-Penz at the New York Times does another round on Consumer Reports as the case for paid content:

It makes no sense for publications to charge readers on the Web — at least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom does not carry much weight at Consumer Reports, that detailed guide to buying everything from prescription drugs to pickup trucks.

Consumer Reports is actually a great example, but not for why everyone should be able to charge for content on the web. Consumer Reports is a great example of just how hard it is to produce non-commodity content that people are willing to pay for — how many web publishers are going to run their own testing lab?

But it’s also an example of a content brand defending the fort against an onslaught of free content — how many other places are there to get product reviews on the web? Hundreds? Thousands? Do all of these sites rigorously test products in a lab? Of course not — but not all people who seek product reviews value that.

Consumer Reports has probably cornered the market on people who do value rigorous, academic-like testing — probably the same people who have been using Consumer Reports for decades (hint: they aren’t under 25, or even under 30).

Then there’s brand. And trust. It’s not that WSJ, or Consumer Reports, or O’Reilly produce the type of content that isn’t available anywhere else on the web for free. People pay for content from those brands because they trust them. And on the Wild Wild Web, trust is key — at least for the generation that didn’t grow up with the web, and who still doesn’t natively trust it as the digital generation does.

But Consumer Reports is in many ways a retroactive example — it’s not a forward looking example of how and why the digital generation will embrace paid content on the web.

And let’s not forget the role of search — many people who seek content on the web do so not by going to an established, trusted content brand like Consumer Reports. They find it through a different trusted brand — Google. People who find content through a search engine typically find free content (monetized with AdSense) that they perceive as “good enough.” So it’s not just about having content that people are willing to pay for — it’s making sure they can find it.

I think the first step to succeeding with paid content is to create a blockbuster online brand — one that is strong enough for people to prefer as a source of premium content, even if they have to pay for it. For example, Brian Clark wrote here about his success with charging for content — but he has built a blockbuster brand with Copyblogger, which gives him the leverage to charge for his content.

The rules of what enables a business to charge for a product haven’t changed. It’s just that for content companies on the web, the competition is fierce — more so than anyone could ever have imagined.