What have a Wunderman planner, creative and suit got in common? They've all been intensely following and exploring the debate of free versus paid content. Constantly in flux, intellectually disputed and haunted by the spectre of big business, they're also finding that the current landscape is changing day by day. Part of our series on ‘free’.
Senior copywriter, Glenn Sturgess, asks who wants to pay for news content? And more to the point, who actually will?
Not many of us, it would appear. Or is that just wishful thinking that Murdoch's announcement about the imminent Times Online pay wall is not the beginning of the end for free content.
Trouble is, it doesn't really look like a rock-solid revenue stream. According to the latest YouGov survey, only 11% of us are currently paying for content across different media, with an average monthly spend of just £5, which mainly comprises music downloads. (Ed. what, some people still pay?)
So what's at the heart of this highly complex, constantly evolving and sometimes raging debate? If there's a future for paid content, just what does it illustrate about the balance of power between international media corporations and their online consumers?
News for sale
There's an undeniable, growing global pressure to charge for content, especially from major industry players such as News International, broadcast companies and newspapers. Murdoch certainly seems to ('seems to', only because he's already changed his mind at least twice) want us to subscribe to online news. However, a recent Harris poll in the UK estimates that only 5% would pay.
Then, there's the conflict of academics, journalists and media gurus, all battling over a free future. It's what Wired's editor, Chris Anderson, proclaims (with an air of optimism and inevitability), is the prospect that "every industry that becomes digital, eventually becomes free".
As any online journalist who wants to make their work widely available knows, reporting a good story is now as important as writing for search engine optimisation (SEO). And SEO usually means Google. But is Google's omnipotence in question, while it continues to provide a free service via its 'News' search? There are protracted negotiations with newswires (including The Associated Press and Reuters) on how it aggregates news (and whether it should). This might radically change the effortless way that many people currently find and consume breaking stories in just one or two clicks.
Meanwhile, the UK's public service broadcast model and BBC Charter has never looked more fragile. Very precarious indeed, if low on the hit list, or so a 'new' government would have us believe.
So, if there's a major shift towards making a huge slice of currently free news and information a paid-for service, what difference will it make to quality? Is there a less influential future in store for the professional content creators of print and broadcast media?
Pay-per-view v. newspapers
The Amazon Kindle reading device shows that some content distributors already believe their contribution is of greater value than the content itself. It allows users to use Wi-Fi or 3G to download up to 1,500 books and even daily newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Telegraph (for £14 a month, mind). All delivered straight to the device's 6-inch monochrome screen from Amazon's Kindle Store, a vast online database.
Not to be outdone, Google Editions has just announced too. As a paid-for version of Google Books, controversially the price per book would be set by publishers and nearly half a million books made available by mid-2010, which is way more than Amazon. Hot on its heels are ASUS, Acer and GIGABYTE with yet more e-book hardware.
While the market decides whether there is a place for e-books carrying news content from professional content creators, it's also important to remember that big corporations are inclined to absorb 'start up' costs. YouTube is still reported to cost Google $1 billion annually and Facebook has only just turned loss into profit, despite 300 million worldwide active users.
Author of The Tipping Point and one of today's more reliable trend-casters, Malcolm Gladwell says Utopia won't exist. That's despite the expectations created by today's 'better than free' YouTube phenomenon.
Instead, he takes the equilibrium view that consumption (i.e. paid for media) will continue to be central to content, although he accepts the erosion of the traditional model of delivery, "Broadcast television - the original practitioner of Free - is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine."
Which effectively means Gladwell thinks people will continue to need qualified, professional commentators to contextualise major events and to lead them through complex issues. As opposed to random bloggers, social media sources and other aggregators and multipliers who, while a valuable source of breaking news and gossip, rarely offer analysis or editorially consistent comment.
Not that I'm criticising news commentary on blogs. Far from it, as Mark Cuban's post and the raft of comments throw real light on the free versus paid debate. While Seth Godin, like Anderson a born believer, is always good value. Whether you believe in their brand of a universally free future for news is quite another matter entirely. Right now, the concept's looking a bit suspect.