Imagine someone spending fifteen years furiously digging themselves into a deep, dangerous hole…and then bitterly complaining about the fact that he or she is trapped at the bottom of a deep, dangerous hole. That’s the situation with today’s media industry..of which, of course, I count myself as a member. Starting in the mid-1990s, publishers began to give away content for free on the Web, a decision which profoundly impacted the economics of the business. Now the business is crumbling. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the Associated Press is grousing about the business model which they helped to create. And publishers are trying to figure out how to charge for what they’ve given away for years.
The New York Observer has an interesting report on plans the New York Times is formulating to get online readers to pay in some fashion. One scenario involves Times Web content being free until a visitor’s reached a certain word count of number of page views; another would launch a membership system that sounds a lot like a public TV pledge drive. The first sounds unwieldy; the second might work for an august institution like the Times, but won’t save most of the industry.
I cheerfully admit that I’d like to see media companies figure out a way to make consumers comfortable with the idea of forking over cash for digital content. As a reader, I want to see the publications I love prosper, or at least manage to stay in business. As a journalist, I’d like to work in an industry with a business model that ensures that sites like, oh, Technologizer can thrive.
(Note: I have no plans to demand money from folks who read this site. But I just set up a Kindle version of Technologizer using Amazon’s new self-serve blog publishing system–the listing is live, but you won’t be able to subscribe for a day or two. It’ll cost $1.99 a month and I kinda think that I’ll be lucky if I make enough from my cut to buy myself a burrito every now and then.)
I wish I had some profound insight into how the media biz might make readers willing to pay for content again. I don’t. But these points seem self-evident:
1) Once you’ve begun to give something away for free, it’s mighty hard to convince someone that he or she should pay for it;
2) It’s tough to charge when you have direct competitors that don’t;
3) It is possible to charge for usually-free content if it’s in a form that provides new benefits (which is why people will pay for CSI as a DVD box set or an iTunes download even though it’s free on CBS);
4) It is possible to charge for high-quality stuff you can’t otherwise get (which is how HBO became a big business in the 1970s, even though TV had been free for decades);
5) Charging for something new that was never free isn’t inherently implausible (which is why the notion of paying two bucks a month to read blogs on the Kindle makes more sense than blogs announcing that they’re instituting a $2 subscription fee on the Web).
Add up all of the above, and I still don’t see a scenario developing in the immediate future in which millions of people pay meaningful amounts of money for the digital equivalents of newspapers and magazines. Then again, much of the Web’s history to date wasn’t predicted by anyone, so I’m not siding with the folks who say that it’s inevitable that the Web will be (mostly) free forever either.
Let’s end this with a T-Poll: