News wants to be…valuable

You’ve seen the text, now read the movie: video of my lecture here.

I was going to post about the experience of being tweeted live during a lecture, but I’m going to divert to relay one or two of the most interesting comments on my lecture theme that journalists have to sharpen the definition of what they do if it’s to be recognised as valuable in a world in which previous news media business models are foundering.

First up is Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, media editor of the Financial Times, who took an original swing at the paywall issue in an edition of the FT magazine a few weeks ago and sent the link, saying “more specialisation and a sharper focus on where news organisations can add value could make it much easier to persuade readers/users/consumers that news is something worth paying for.”

I wish I’d seen that piece before writing the lecture. This is it:

If there is one orthodoxy of the past decade that the media industry has reason to curse, it was born when Stewart Brand told the 1984 Hackers’ Conference that “information wants to be free”.

People still disagree about what Brand actually meant – and many of those credited with promoting the “free information” idea have since disavowed it – but the phrase has given intellectual cover to everything from music piracy to the notion that not paying for news is an immutable culture of the internet.

Back when people still talked about the “information superhighway”, they scoffed at the idea of it being impeded by toll booths. Online advertising – new and improved – was supposed to cover information owners’ bills. But just as the gleaming freeways of the US’s postwar heyday are now potholed and crumbling, the content free-for-all has eroded media companies’ business models and risks overloading communication networks.

Now content owners from magazine publishers to pay-television broadcasters are wondering why they put all their trust in a single advertising revenue stream.

It is time to revisit Brand’s full quote: “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Too often in the century’s first digital decade there was no fight at all, but now the information-wants-to-be-expensive mantra is gaining the upper hand. Publishers have pushed Amazon.com to raise prices on eBooks, Apple’s “app economy” is allowing even those with free websites to charge for applications for iPods and iPads, and The New York Times is following specialist titles such as the FT and The Wall Street Journal in charging for news online.

To consumers used to enjoying a free ride, this sounds ominous. On the other hand, we’ve just spent a decade gorging ourselves on too much content of little nutritional value. Expensive content may prove higher-fibre. Indeed, the free-content movement distracted an industry from considering which content is worth paying for. Focus more on the latter, and there is a chance to improve on a dire decade.

To Brand’s maxim, let’s try a new one for the coming decade: content wants to be valuable.

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