Response to “Free”

6 07 2009

After reading this debate over Chris Anderson’s forthcoming book, “Free,” I’m even more intrigued and looking forward to reading it (ideally, for free).

We’ve seen examples of successful instances of “free” content within the music and digital realms. Bands that give away music downloads have seen a rise in concert ticket sales, merchandise sales and even music purchases. I’ve certainly downloaded free music, fell in love with a band and then dished out cash for concert tickets and posters. Within the digital realm, “Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising,” Anderson writes. But there has yet to be such a success story in journalism.

The debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Anderson looks pretty typical. The old-school journalist is threatened, but raises good points. The new media thought leader responds, “You just don’t get it.”

I need to read “Free” before I can decide whether I agree with Anderson. I likely will agree with some of his points but find fault with others. For example, Anderson argues that, “Distribution is now close enough to free to round down.” But Gladwell correctly points out that YouTube, despite its popularity, has yet to make any money for Google. YouTube tries to sell ads alongside videos, but must pay for professional content that advertisers want to be associated with.

Mark Cuban’s take on the situation most resonated with me. Cuban correctly points out that we are experiencing “Better Than Free” right now because we assign value to media based on how much it used to cost. “We value all those TV shows on Hulu highly because we assign a value to what we pay for cable or satellite,” Cuban writes. “We assign a high perceived value to newspaper and magazine reports based on the years we spent paying for them.”

Cuban makes a solid point that the music, TV and movie industries have learned they can give away content for free but “they don’t have to allow it to be freely distributed.” The industry sets the terms for where you get the content, such as Hulu, which often requires registration or your attention spent on ads.

Cuban contends that newspapers should take back control of where their work appears. “They should distribute their content for Free where they believe it maximizes return, but should do everything possible to keep it from being distributed Freely,” he says. This move won’t save newspapers or magazines, he says, but it will ultimately make their websites stronger. To an extent, I agree. If newspapers required that other news sites link to their stories (rather than reprinting them), they would direct content to their site and help build their traffic and brand. But stories are often reprinted through a content-sharing agreement with other media outlets. Unfortunately, the staffs and quality of most newspapers have diminished so greatly, that newspapers need these agreements. Without stories from other papers and the wires, there would rarely be fresh, timely content on their sites.

“If they can’t make their content stand out from the open source masses and convince enough people to transact with them in a way that makes them money they don’t deserve to exist,” Cuban says. Sadly, this will be the case for most newspapers.

I agree with Godin’s description of what people will pay for. “People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.” People will not, however, pay for “by-the-book rewrites of news” or “yesterday’s news,” he says.

I particularly enjoyed Seth Godin’s blunt response to Gladwell and other critics: It doesn’t matter if we want the future to be free. It is. It doesn’t mater how the new business model will support our current world. “…The world will change around it, because the world has no choice.”




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