Thursday, March 01, 2007

Everything Old Is New Again

Chris Anderson has a provocative post on the future of webdom:

I propose that things that are paid will become free and vice versa. So music and books and other media are turning from paid products to free marketing, while free-to-air video and radio become a subscription or on-demand product for a fee. If I explain any more the premise will fall apart, so I'll stop here. It is now A Law. Obey.

He's just thinking out loud, so there's no sense in trying to pick this apart, but as a conversation starter, I think it's pretty interesting. Also, it seems to me that it may be at least half right: The half about things that are now free becoming paid.

I've spent the last couple years preaching that newspapers and magazines should be charging for at least a portion of their online content. If I were running the web operations of a big-city daily, I'd follow the Wall Street Journal's model: Give away the stuff that other people do for free ( and charge like a mofo for the stuff that only you provide (everything else in the paper, which is locked down at It's not obvious to me why this wouldn't work for the Baltimore Sun or the Kansas City Star. Take the op-ed pages, supplement them with some opinion writing by your editorial staff that only appears online, trim down the national and world covereage in the paper, and throw lots and lots of resources into reporting the heck out of local news, business, technology, politics, and sports. And don't give any of that away for free.

Few newspapers would be able to get away with charging what the charges, but why couldn't they charge something smaller, say $19.99 a year. And if more newspapers and magazines move to this formula, they'll increase each others' pricing power, because as the freebie alternatives dry up, consumers should be more inclined to pay. (Consequently, I also suspect that having a paying audience of readers would increase the value of online advertising at a site.)

(I remember back about six or seven years ago, the holy grail of online news was the idea of micropayments--that everyone would have some PayPal-ish version of an EZ Pass and all articles would carry some tiny price tag, say $0.05. And then readers would pay as they go. I suppose that's still theoretically possible, but I suspect that the evolution of payment for news is much more likely to follow the traditional subscription model than an iTunes model.)

Not to over-analyze the psychology of media executives, but it seems to me that they've become so brainwashed by the constant claims that journalism is worthless, the Old Media is dead, MSM = Big Evil, dinosaurs, sail power, blah, blah, blah, that they've lost the confidence to even consider charging for the work they do when it appears online. This has allowed a huge market of bloggers and news aggregators to spring up and make space for themselves, in many cases off the back of the reporting work done by traditional newspapers and magazines. (Churchill would be unsurprised to see that failure of nerve cripples industrial empires as surely as it does military and cultural ones.)

If newspapers and magazines are to survive and thrive, eventually they'll have to take the plunge and find the courage to charge for the work they perform.

The other half of Anderson's argument, that paid programming today (books, music, video?) will become free is also interesting, although it seems less obvious to me. The bellwether here may be Google's attempt to digitize and distribute books, thus making a profits on other people's copyrighted material. Will individual authors and artists be cowed into not enforcing their copyrights? I would guess not.

But there are certainly signs suggesting that they might.


Jacob said...

I don't know. The reason the WSJ can charge money is cause it has a shitload of reporters. I heard somewhere, don't know if it's true, but that the WSJ has the majority of US foreign correspondents. It seems that some of the big papers could definitely charge for some of this. But you run into problems with smaller papers. One, ther's always going to be some news leaking out for free and the such in terms of foreign and domestic. Two –and I know how you hate teh blogs– but it doesn't strike me necessarily that mediocre local papers won't provide the same services as local blogs can.

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was funny that everything in the NY Times online is free, except for their editorials.

So the useful stuff (the news) they give away, while the useless stuff (their blowhard editorialists' personal opinions, in all their fallacious and facetious glory) are locked up!


Kind of like radio stations who think that people tune in to listen to their DJs blathering on and telling bad jokes instead of the music....

Richard Jennings said...

you can get free access to the Wall street Journal site with a netpass from: