The idea that ‘information wants to be free’ is the driving force behind so much content delivery on the Internet. It sounds good, right — progressive and egalitarian? But it’s a tenet that’s bankrupting newspapers, impoverishing photographers and redrawing the media map. And if we don’t start paying for online content soon, we’ll all be the poorer.
My first job in the Internet industry was in 1995, when I went to work for fledgling web consultancy Nua. Gerry McGovern (or ‘guru Gerry’ as we called him not quite to his face), had this weird idea about ‘making free information pay’.
We created a bunch of free email newsletters about web stuff, and became very successful as a result. But for us, successful meant getting paying web development jobs.
This approach is still valid and valuable — you spend time blogging, tweeting and the rest to show how much you know, connect with people and (hopefully) get some paying gigs out of it. Professional content creators — individuals and organisations — can and should do some of this, too.
One traditional way to fund this give-away is by advertising, but since that’s never really balanced the books online, we need another plan. Which is why I unfashionably pay for content. I’ve worked as a journalist (freelancing for the Irish Times, Salon.com, New Mexcio magazine and other publications), I’ve written a book (published by the Irish division of major UK publishing house Hodder Headline), and I’ve had photographs used by local and national publications and organisations.
I know about being paid for producing creative works. But I’ve also worked in the Internet industry for 15 years, know my way around BitTorrent and read the New York Times online for free every morning.
So I can see it from both sides, but the crucial point is this: it’s hard and expensive to produce high-quality work. It takes the talent, experience, resources and time of a large team to get a book published or a magazine issue produced. Think of a book that hangs together across 80,000 words, with not a single typo or unnecessary sentence — every word pored over by people who do this stuff for a living.
You could go to blurb.com and run one off yourself — and that’s cool — but when you buy a book, it’s not really the paper and binding you’re paying for — it’s the skill of the people who made the countless number of decisions that made it turn out so well.
Same with newspapers — getting the things printed and distributed every morning is a tough job, but not half as hard as having skilled people spend all day chasing leads, asking tough questions, editing flabby copy and checking facts.
There’s an argument that citizen journalists will rise up to fill the gaps left by the dying newspapers, and there are some areas where I could see that work — experts writing about topics they know intimately that don’t involve lots of daily legwork (or being shot at in war zones). But creating good journalism takes people who know what they’re doing and are paid for their time spent doing it. And it looks like we need a new plan for where that money’s going to come from.
A magazine doesn’t need to be between two glossy covers to be worth reading, and online delivery creates a new medium with new challenges and opportunities. But the question the publishing industry as a whole is struggling with is how the hell are we going to make enough money to keep doing this? I don’t know how the new business models will work — Jason Pontin has some ideas more concrete than the usual ‘the sky is falling’ analysis here — but I do know I’m happy to pay for people to do this stuff for me in one way or another.
Aggregating is not creating
The argument that Google somehow renders newspapers obsolete confuses me. Aggregating news and deciding on priorities based on algorithms is interesting and liberating, but there a couple of points here. One is that part of what I’m happy to pay for is for editors who know a lot more than I do to decide what’s important for me to know about. It’s subjective, sure — the UK model of many national newspapers with their biases known and trumpeted sounds fine to me — but it’s better than a simple popularity contest. What’s important or interesting (in absolute terms or just to me) is seldom what’s the most popular.
The other point here is that Google wouldn’t have much to aggregate if there weren’t news gatherers and creators all over the world putting stuff online. Google has many creative people, but not many hardened journalists and photographers.
So recently I’ve started subscribing to more print publications — Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Week, Wired, Macworld, Photo District News — and keeping up my online subscription to Salon. If I could pay for the New York Times online (and the BBC iPlayer shows I’m watching) I would.
I’m getting a subscription not because I think the print versions of these publications are the only way they can and should make money, but because it’s the best we have right now. I want these publications still to be around when we figure out how to pay for all this online in a way that works for people.
The Cable TV Model
The Kindle’s online subscription online (which includes print publications and interestingly, paying for blog feeds too) suggests one way forward. In these cases (and with buying books on the Kindle too), you’re more directly paying for the creative work, not the final physical production costs.
People have got very comfortable with this model for music downloads — you knew you were always paying for the songs, not the CD anyway, and so moving to mp3s doesn’t seem so weird.
As yet there’s no iTunes Store-style infrastructure to allow this to happen for print media — you shouldn’t have to pay the New York Times using one payment system and the Irish Times using another. And it seems to me that micropayments per article doesn’t make as much sense as a subscription model.
Having to pay for everything individually (however small the fee) will remind me that I’m paying for it, and discourage use. The Netflix on demand subscription approach seems better, following the cable TV subscriptions we’re all used to in the US. Pay a monthly fee to some large amount of access tailored to you (I don’t want Homes and Gardens, but I might want the Utne Reader), and let me read what I want.
And offer me channels of related content based on topic not just provider — so I can read everything about the elections in Iran, from any of the sources I’ve subscribed to. If I could also see related content from places I’ve not subscribed to yet, that would help me find other sources I like (and might be willing to pay for).
This sounds a bit like an RSS reader on steroids — something that could handle the monetary side as well as the delivery of text, images, video, audio and the interactive elements that would make it easy to comment, twitter, blog and refer others to the material.
But until that (or something like it) comes along, I’m going to give the publications money for their print versions. An economic stimulus package of my own.