Over the last few days I have been debating the NYT pay wall on a private email thread of friends. I didn't feel the need to post it on my blog because I thought that pay walls were so obviously a losing strategy that it was a waste of time to comment.
But combined with the recent law suit against the Huffingon Post and Arianna Huffington's eqloquent response yesterday, I felt it was worth while to re-publish my thoughts here. Most of them are based on thinking and writing that I did many years ago around Attention. Most of that old writing has been lost in the blog shuffle. Hopefully one day I will dig it up and re-post it in a safe place.
On to the issue...
The price of content
I believe that people have historically paid for the medium not the content.
They pay for 'Cable' not for 'CNN News'. They pay for 'The Paper' not for the content in the newspaper. They pay for 'CDs' not for the music on the album.
Also they paid a lot because the medium was perceived to be scarce (scarce materials, scarce shelf space, scarce advertising dollars), scarce talented people.
Consumers are not stupid, they understand (if only somewhere at the back of their mind) that the COST of creating and distributing things has been deflated by a growing list of converging trends.
We live in a world of abundance (in the area of digital content anyway). Shelf space is infinite (database entries), any kid in a basement can make content and there is no physical media anymore so cost of distribution has disappeared as well.
The scarcity now is on the consumption side - Attention is the scarce resource. Value is derived from scarcity.
That's why on the Internet, Attention allocation systems (Google Search, FB News Feed etc) are attracting traffic, engagement and ultimately profit.
In this new world, the price of content must be reduced significantly as shakeouts and rebalancing occurs - because the cost of producing it is approaching zero.
The more the Music, TV and News industry fight this, the more they leave themselves open to disruption by Google, FB, Twitter and the rest of silicon valley.
This is not even to mention that everyone is producing content now. Tweets, Photos, Videos - it's abundant. Of course most of it isn't very 'good' by J school standards - but that's irrelevant. The world has never rewarded good with any consistency.
Also just because content is not good, doesn't mean it isn't personally meaningful.
For example, I care more what my child (theoretical child of course) posts to FB than the most important journalist in all the world says on CNN.
But please don't confuse my dispassionate assessment of the issue as pleasure or happiness at the demise of mainstream media though.
I am simply stating the facts because without understanding those we can't begin to change them (if that's what the media world decided to do).
In terms of making a judgement of those facts, I think that curators who weave and summarize a broader narrative in the form of 'reporting' are critical for an informed citizenship and a functional democracy. I believe in it so much that I have dedicate my life to helping mainstream media companies staying relevant and co-writing things like this: http://aboutecho.com/2010/08/18/essay-real-time-storytelling/
But I also believe that mainstream mass media broke an ancient (and by ancient, I mean as old as rudimentary human communication) pattern of people telling each other personal stories vs. getting all their stories/news from editorialized mass broadcasts.
The Internet may just be restoring the balance. The result is some massive restructuring of inflated budgets, processes, offices, costs etc. While we're in the middle of that restructuring, it looks like a media apocalypse. Until it settles down and a new equilibrium is found.
The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation -- from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are options made possible by new technologies.
The same people who never question why someone would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight can't understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues -- great and small -- that interest them. For free. They don't understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who tweet for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook pages for free, and who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities... for free.
Free content -- shared by people who want to connect, share their passions, and have their opinions heard -- fuels much of what appears on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Flickr, and YouTube. As John Hrvatska, a commenter on the New York Times, wrote of the Tasini suit, "So, does this mean when YouTube was sold to Google that all the people who posted videos on YouTube should have been compensated?" (And Mr. Hrvatska no doubt contributed that original and well-reasoned thought without any expectation he'd be paid for it. He just wanted to weigh in.)
And here's a bit of 'Free Content' - A conversation I had on Twitter wish someone who disagreed with this post.