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Friday, September 23, 2005

It Doesn't Exist if It's not Free

I got an email this week (a sort of whiny one, actually) from a journalist at a national publication that charges for its on-line content. He wanted to make it clear that he was actually the one who broke a story that I linked to at another publication’s (free) site.

This example perfectly illustrates the limitations of the paid-content business model and shows why media organizations that charge for their content are ceding their relevance to other providers.

In order for content to become part of the broad cultural discussion, it needs to be made available for free, and it needs to remain free over time. Publications like The Wall Street Journal that charge for new content and like The New York Times that charge for access to archived content are sacrificing their long-term cultural relevance for short-term profitability.

Before the age of the Internet, the ability to distribute content gave power. The words of a journalist or critic that were backed by the power of an editorial function, a printing press, a fleet of delivery trucks, and a network of distribution outlets dripped with an authority that was conferred by this complex enterprise.

With the advent of the Internet, these distribution barriers broke down. Anyone with technical know-how could develop a website and make his thoughts available to the world. With the subsequent development of blogging software, the remaining barriers disappeared. Today, one doesn’t even need to have basic technical skills to publish a website.

There is only one barrier to entry remaining for someone who wants to become a voice in the culture at large: the ability to think and write clearly. Granted, that’s still a large barrier, but there have always been more people interested in being journalists and critics than there have been publications to support them. Today one doesn’t need the backing of a major publication to develop a voice and establish a dedicated readership.

Today the editorial, printing, and distribution functions have almost no impact on how a writer develops credibility and reaches an audience of readers. Readers are rapidly migrating away from pay-for-use information services (in print or on the web) and turning to free sites hosted by print publications and to other information providers (like bloggers) for current cultural content. Researchers are becoming more reliant on search engine results for information and less reliant on proprietary systems and pay-for-use archives. By hiding their writers behind a curtain that readers must pay to open, mainstream publications are diluting their historical roles in the culture as conveyors of information and tastemakers.

Content wants to be free. It’s never truly free to distribute content, although with the Internet the costs have decreased significantly. But as long as mainstream publications continue to charge for their content, their cultural influence and relevance will continue to decline. And their writers will continue to whine that nobody reads them or gives them credit for their work.

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