Lots of debate this past week about Free, Chris Anderson’s new book. Anderson claims that no consumer under 30 will pay for content. And why should they? YouTube videos are free. Music can be had for free. Even the venerable NY Times is free.
Yet in a convincing review in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell disputes Anderson’s arguments, pointing out that free hasn’t worked as a business model, at least not for YouTube, one of the examples Anderson uses to prove his point. Emma Duncan, the brilliant Economist editor took a shot as well.
(Knowing that The Long Tail never panned out as predicted, Anderson is a good target).
On the other side of the argument, however, stands Seth Godin. On what might be one of the world’s most popular blogs, Seth gives Malcolm a verbal slap arguing that it’s too late: free is here and media properties like Wired and the New Yorker better start generating digital assets of true value or risk going out of business themselves.
However, two facts strike me of interest. The first is that I didn’t pay for any of the above. And that includes Anderson’s original Wired article that started this whole debate. So as a beneficiary of free, I’ve got no complaints.
The second, however, is that none of these writers/bloggers/critics would ever offer up their services without getting paid. Sure, Seth might bang out his daily blog post and not charge you to read it, but that’s what drives up the asking fee for his next book or speaking engagement. Anderson himself makes a hefty salary writing for Wired and last I checked Amazon was charging for his book.
It strikes me there are two different kinds of free. The free we all want to give away: in blogs, on Slideshare, in webinars. And the free we have to give away: news, music, speculative pitches (in my business). The former we give freely in hopes it will earn us attention, respect, confidence and eventual business. The latter we give reluctantly. But as wiki’s, Twitter and YouTube offer us information, news and entertainment (even though some of it’s crap) from a multitude of sources happy to share without charging, all content becomes devalued. This is, of course, what’s killing newspapers and eventually magazines.
This past Sunday the New York Times, in its lead business story, declared that blogs and Twitter are becoming the primary sources of information distribution for new companies and products, to such a degree that PR professionals don’t even bother with what used to be called mainstream media. They let the digital buzz generate excitement and the mainstream media will then take notice.
Still I’m pretty sure that the editors of Tech Crunch and GigaOM are getting paid, and if they have contributors sending them content for free, such as in the case of Mashable, those contributors are doing so in hopes of themselves earning more money elsewhere, their reputations enhanced by their bylines and visibility.
This, in fact, is one of Anderson’s key arguments. Media needs to find ways to convince contributors to “donate” their content so that the cost of acquiring it shrinks to near nothing. (You can’t give stuff away for free if you have to pay to get it.)
But as more and more traditional media go out of business, won’t the quality of what’s left over be significantly diminished? True, in the case of Iran, Twitter might let us know, but isn’t it the perspective and analysis of the New York Times or the Economist that allows us to understand.
And finally the real question: would we ever get content equal to the writing of Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Emma Duncan or even Seth Godin if someone, possibly us, doesn’t pay for it? I have my doubts. What are your thoughts? Is free here to stay? And if it is, will there be more Malcolms and Emmas? Or fewer?