In My Opinion To Fee or Not to Fee?

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By Robert Miles
January 31, 2002

[Editor's Note: The following post comes from our Berkshire Hathaway discussion board. The author is Robert Miles, a.k.a SimpleInvestor. Apart from being a regular contributor to the Fool Community, Robert has also penned two excellent books about Berkshire Hathaway, 101 Reasons to Own the World's Greatest Investment: Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, and The Warren Buffett CEO.]

To fee or not to fee?

This is a question that had to be on Tom and David's minds for some time. Considering our righting and reading and their rithmetic, they are dropping the 'r' and are going from free to fee.

As an author that got his start by posting on TMF, I have a different perspective regarding an annual fee for the Fool discussion boards. As you might guess, I support it.

TMF has given us a canvas and a forum to write and create and get instant feedback.

Consider TMF as a low-fee publishing site with thousands of viewers without the need to get an editor's approval. So many talented posters need a forum to create and think out their thoughts in writing and share them with like-minded and not so like-minded viewers. My guess is there may be many more published authors from TMF discussion boards. It's just a matter of time before posters like Rclosch, Woodstove, DeliLama, and Wtilson gather their posts and publish them.

You can think something or even say something, but it takes on a whole new dimension when you write it and a universal dimension when you post it on the Internet. You can think it, write it, and post it in a matter of minutes. It is there in cyberspace for all to see, contemplate, admire, criticize, or ignore. You may stimulate others to thought, raise hair on the back of some necks, or simply be overlooked.

Someone once said that success is winning the respect of intelligent minds. Drafting a well thought out post and throwing it out to be pondered, ignored, admired, built upon or criticized -- or all the above -- is putting yourself in such an arena for worldwide evaluation.

More than one has said you can learn just as much if not more from critics. Although the one-thing Internet discussion boards have failed to do is to bring out the best in people who dissent with anonymity. Some label them hecklers without accountability. Sometimes the faceless nature and pseudonyms of the Internet make participants act differently than if they were face-to-face. But TMF has done the best job creating civility and deleting posts that offend as well as promote. They occasionally invite participants to leave. Some frequent posters threaten to leave and come back. They rarely delete posts that criticize TMF, even posts that are critical of their right to change from free to fee.

Many fools have created their own websites [EliasFardo, Rrockwood, Sandman, TIConline, Marlinls, RoughlyRight, FutileFrance] but their challenge is getting viewers, both quality and quantity. Creating for a party of one isn't as much fun as sharing your writings with thousands. Said differently, singing in the shower to yourself isn't anywhere close to stepping into the TMF recording studio and belting out a song for all to hear-- or not hear. TMF has created a unique library or bookstore and is now charging for those that want to enter, read, learn, and or be entertained. Just like your local library charging local property tax for library patrons to enjoy or bookstore owners selling you a cup of coffee, TMF wants lurkers (viewers) to help defray the costs of providing content.

Some may choose to leave and go to another free site like Yahoo! but the best minds will gravitate towards quality and eventually return to the best content, the most educated audience, the most critical reviewers, and the most experienced investors. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

After a quick look at Yahoo! you may come to the same conclusion: It is a chat room filled with good mornings and good nights with 10 percent related to Berkshire and the rest off topic. It is not edited for profanity and subject to pump and dump posters. It has become what the participants want it to be.

It is widely known that Warren Buffett views TMF yet TMF has never advertised that fact. If it's good enough for the world's greatest investor, is it good enough for you?

I was first drawn to Berkshire as an investment because of the integrity and quality of its management. Likewise, the attraction to TMF was because of the quality of posts that added to my understanding of my investment in Berkshire.

TMF has been the leader in discussion boards and to maintain their lead they need to adapt their business model. Net Zero used to offer free Internet service. They were unable to sustain themselves with advertising so they are now Net Half (half the cost of AOL and MSN). AOL has a Berkshire discussion board but you need to pay more than $15 a year to participate.

If you attend Berkshire's annual meeting you won't see staff from Yahoo!, AOL, or any other Internet sponsored discussion boards, but you will see staff from TMF and get comprehensive and timely reports from the press conference. My guess is TMF staff is attending at their own expense, on their own vacation time.

TMF has innovated by creating recommended posts, which has helped viewers self select their reading based on viewers before them. This is a meritocracy at its best. For the sake of time some viewers simply read posts that are highly recommended and ignore the rest. This is like going to a restaurant and getting instant reviews on your menu from the most recent patrons before you order and eat. Think of it as an instant Consumers Digest.

Berkshire shareholders and value investors need a place to get the straight story. Long-term shareholders and seekers of quality investments will not mind paying $15 a year to be surrounded by the best and brightest minds. TMF was once a 24-hour free library and publishing house with patron created content and patron created reviews, but is now a low-fee service.

Four cents a day doesn't seem like much if you consider the 25 to 50 cents per day for your local newspaper, and unlike TMF you don't get a regular guest column to say whatever is on your mind or to comment on something else that was written without an editor's red pen. The strength of TMF is that intelligent and not so intelligent dissenters have just as much if not more space to post their opinions.

TMF's challenge is to drop the "r" and go from a free to a paid service. I wish TMF luck because my world would have been and will be much different without them.

[You can become a Charter Member of the Fool Community and get two years for the price of one by clicking here. For more information from Fool co-founders Tom and David Gardner about the switch from free to fee, click here. Join Robert and thousands of other great writers and investors and become part of the Fool Community.]

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