Free may be a radical price, but is it progressive?

July 10, 2009

padraig_reidy-Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index on Censorship. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Mainstream consumer media is, it is agreed, in trouble. The idea of paying for one or two newspapers a day is now confined, it seems, to quaintly old-fashioned types who boast of their ignorance of the Internet, or business who actually need the information in the pages of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Wire services’ content is processed so fast by subscribers that one can barely spot the time difference. Local newspapers are seeing their stock in trade diminished. When one’s entire life is catalogued on Facebook and Flickr, there’s little thrill in having your picture in the local paper, or indeed huge necessity in publishing births, deaths and marriages. And why place a classified ad in a newspaper, when we have eBay and Gumtree?

The solution? Some, such as “Wired” magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, would suggest simply giving things away. Anderson’s new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” is available for free from the web until 1 August, while the hardback edition will be sold, at a price, in shops and on Amazon.

The idea, Anderson tells the Los Angeles Times is that some of those who download for free will also buy the book, if they are sufficiently impressed, of course. It’s a principle that has already been seen at work in the music world, where Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’ freely on the web, and later released the album to shops, without any noticeable decline in sales.

But can this model work for news, long term? Books and songs are thing we accumulate, collect and return to. Professionals, academics and institutions aside, very few people retain newspaper articles in any way. Yesterday’s news tends to be precisely that, condemned, at best, to the recycling bin. Online, trends tend to move so fast that one could seriously question Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ theory.

Old news articles’ major purpose now seems to be for cutting and pasting into online arguments on forums and messageboards, useful for those engaged in debate, but perhaps not so much for anyone wishing to create revenue from content.

Some have put forward the idea that governments could fund local and national media to a much greater extent. But while the continued high reputation of the BBC shows that state ownership is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the UK there are already fears that local government funded media, such as freesheets and online TV stations, all too quickly become nothing more than propaganda for the leading party in the council chamber.

And internationally, while government-funded media may be relatively trustworthy in liberal democracies, there are far too many examples of state-run media in less free countries about the capability of reporters to stray from the party line, and governments have proved adept at manipulating media, even to the point of slowing Internet connections — the 21st century equivalent of smashing the printing presses.

Independent media needs independent funding. But how will this be done, in the age of free? Is it too late to ask people to pay for news online?

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