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It is the hot topic in media circles: should news organisations give away their content on the web for free? This week saw a few posts by influential bloggers and media commenters on the subject. Here's a round-up.

Free

Tuesday's blog explosion about the arguments for and against free web content were caused in part by Malcom Gladwell's (author of 'Outliers' and 'Blink') review of a new book on the subject of free content by WIRED magazine's Chris Anderson in The New Yorker.

At the center of Gladwell's argument is the idea that charging nothing for something is bad business. You can't pay a staff or make any money if you're not bringing any in from your users.

It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.” Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?

Anderson's argument is that 'information wants to be free', which has become something of a mantra for the like-minded people in the industry.

However Gladwell points out that 'free' is in fact a price in itself.

Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power.

While the battle rages on, established titles are being eaten by the disruptive force of the internet. Yesterday the prominent American urban music magazine Vibe announced it was closing, effective immediately.

Once Gladwell's piece went live, Seth Godin, author of 12 books, most recently 'Tribes', took the opportunity to disagree with it in a blog post titled "Malcom is wrong".

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. We'll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.

Completing the blog headline meme is Jason Preston of the publishing blog Eat Sleep Publish, with the post "Seth Is Wrong". Jason a social media consultant and professional blogger at the Parnassus Group.

If we are to have a digital based economy (and this, I think, is the inevitable truth), then we need to have more digital goods that cost money, not more digital goods that are free.

Jason then returns to Malcom's original point that 'free' is a price and a non-starter for a business model. He also notes that the past business model of relying on outside revenue sources, like advertising, is not effective in the pursuit of a 'free' product.

Free is, ultimately, an impotent business model, because you cannot make money. Even in these scenarios where you “make money on the surrounding businesses,” those surrounding businesses are not based on Free.

Because of the wide-ranging implications of "free" content, even non-media types are weighing in. Here we have Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association team the Dallas Mavericks and HDNet, chiming in on the back-and-forth between Seth and Malcom in a blog post titled "Free vs Freely Distributed".

[Content producers] should distribute their content for Free where they believe it maximizes return, but should do everything possible to keep it from being distributed Freely.

No one has the answer to monetising the web, but they have provided some much-needed healthy debate on the subject.

Ben LaMothe

Published 2 July, 2009 by Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe is a web & social media strategist with Florida-based advertising and marketing consultancy Renaissance Creative. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (3)

Vidar Brekke

Vidar Brekke, CEO at Social Intent

Free may not be a good thing in the long run. It runs the risk of reducing consumer choice instead of expanding it.

Many free content & svcs. businesses run on VC money - not on sound business models. Often the exit strategy is to get aquired by another "free" services company, with deeper VC pockets.  In the meantime, established fee-based businesses are suffering and may run out of business. When the VC money dries up, then what do consumers have left?

Freemium, on the other hand, is a fine business strategy. Free, not so much. Free was an historical mistake suitable mostly for UGC.

about 7 years ago

Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe, Web & Social Media Strategist at Renaissance Creative

Hi Vidar:

Thanks for your comment. I agree, free is not an actual business strategy. It props itself up on perpetual borrowing. Every day is a fight to stay out of the red. In America there's a growing tide of publishers keen to monetise their web content. Unfortunately they're late to the party. It will require a dramatic change in how people perceive and view web content for consumers to be OK with paying for content that, until recently, was free. The Wall Street Journal has a part-paywall that seems to be serving them well. But, like anything, there are ways to circumvent that. 

-Ben

about 7 years ago

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Sency

Social networking allows for content to be shared more easily.  Sency.com offers a free feed for websites granting them access to website content.

almost 7 years ago

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