Searching for Revenue in Free Journalism

The state of journalism. It is bigger than the Internet, the fall of classified advertising, funding for investigative journalism, search aggregators and the link economy. To briefly take a broad 30,000 foot view, if not the foundation, journalism is a pillar of a democratic society. It is the check on the check and balance governmental system designed by and for the people to ensure justice as well as truth.

Journalism continues its predicted and precarious state of crisis. There is no one entity to directly blame, but the problem seems clear. Free. The very first thing taught in every economics class is that nothing is free. Everything has a cost. Clearly objects, food and even land has a value, a monetary cost. Cost can be subjective, but one of the few truths of this world is that all things have a cost established through a price derived by demand. The cost to produce a thing must also be factored into price and perhaps this is specifically where journalism stumbled. Providing content for free that holds high demand and cost of production to the nascent communication medium known as the Internet in the ’90s is the jagged root befalling journalism.

Priced to Sell. It is an educated, well researched address by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker about the longevity of the online business model of free that has been propped up by the Internet. The article in part reviews the book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” by James Moroney read Chris Anderson as well as the premise of free as a business strategy at large. It is clear Gladwell questions the blogosphere’s war cry that “Information wants to be free,” but does not go all the way in completely debunking the theory by closing with:

“The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”

I will take this final step. Information absolutely, positively does not want to be free. Moreover, ideas and information are the most valuable product of man. Unfortunately, the Internet and the link economy has driven down the cost of access to ideas expressed through words and video so far that ideas and information have become free in the minds of most consumers. Sure, in most cases there is a cost to access the Internet, but the idea creators do not receive compensation. Understand that there is a difference in this discussion between ideas and communication. The varied platforms known loosely as social networks that advance societies ability to communicate is a great positive built on the back of the Internet. It has allowed the dispersion of knowledge such as natural disasters and human rights violations to a global audience at a speed never seen before. Free communication is good. Free ideas is not.

The Associated Press announced yet another plan to try and ensure compensation for its content – its ideas that have very real value both to society and in cost to produce. As expected, the blogoshere berated the AP and denounced the organization as decaying old media institution that we would be better off without. Shortsighted in my opinion. More and more media companies are beginning to awake to the strategy that the one thriving newspaper in America has stuck by throughout the Internet age. The Wall Street Journal is not free and I expect by the close of 2010 most other news organizations online will not be free either. Ideas and information has value. This year free has eliminated news papers such as the Rocky Mountain News. From its ashes rises the RockyMountainIndependent that will include memberships as source of revenue. True, for now, most of its content will be free, however it is developing separate content for paying members that I expect will expand to a larger portion of the site. Ideas and Information are not free. They have value and should be paid accordingly to ensure a sustainable future for journalism.


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