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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Yes and no. It’s both too late and too early.

There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch. There’s only a subsidised lunch, and the “free” content on the Internet is all subsidised in some way or another. When a blogger gets paid for adverts that his readers see (if they don’t have ad blockers), we all pay slightly more in the shops for the advertised goods than we ought to; when a company gives away a million free games to sell a thousand, the thousand people are paying more than they ought so the 999,000 pay less than they ough, and so on.

Like sex, every generation thinks that it is the first to discover the secret of an economy funded entirely by subsidy. Of course, from the Romans to the Soviets, from British Leyland to French farmers, it all eventually goes belly up. The “free” Internet economy will go belly up too, though nobody can yet say when or how. But once it has done, order will be restored to the news industry. And any other industries that have been trashed along the way.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

These free newspapers one can get in London for example are a disaster for traditional main stream print media. I have seen on train carriages at times more or else everyone reading either Metro or London Lite. It shows that either people would rather save their change or they simple do not want a good quality broadsheet that dissects what’s happening. They rather have some free rubbish that passes the time on their way to work. We rather be ignorant than be informed.

Posted by Jag | Report as abusive

If all newspapers required a fine to view their sites, I wish there’d be a massive boycott. But likely people would pay anyway. The problem for the media is to coordinate their effort so the change occurs contemporaneously. Otherwise, no one would go to the site that you had to pay for; they’d all flock to the free ones.

Posted by Lucy P. | Report as abusive

Free content is usually ‘base’ content and offers very little value, e.g. the Metro and LondonLite free papers. If you want quality information, be it news, reviews or A-lister gossip, you have to pay for it, and people will pay for it. Newspapers will not die, however, if they hand over their content creation to lobby groups and PR campaigns, then they deserve a slow decline.
Yes things have changed, but it’s not the end. It’s just the beginning!

Posted by Simon Drake | Report as abusive

The reasons for people using the internet is because it is free (especially if people use free software). We don’t have to pay for it and it is relatively free from censorship. Newspapers and TV are also passive media. We have to take whatever lies are directed at us. We can have no input, except, in a very limited way, subject to their editorial control. All newspapers (including the free ones) and television are working for government or corporate interests. There are also many government and corporate agents working, at all levels, in any mainstream media that government or corporations do not directly control.

If you think that people will go back to paying for expensive government or corporate propaganda now that there are alternatives to it, you are fooling yourselves.

Posted by farnaby | Report as abusive

The market will consolidate, shrink and eventually start making healthy profits again.

The market for news operates here no differently than it does anywhere else. The problem is not that media is generally available for free nowadays, it is that there is too much supply.

In years gone by (pre-internet) much of the mainstream media was geographically focussed which meant that tailoring the news to a particular audience gave a competitive advantage which gobbled up a lot of the supply. Now that mainstream news is consumed globally, a lot (but not all) of the geographic advantages have weakened significantly. The same level of supply we had in past years has become, relatively speaking, too much.

Evidence of this is all over. Check CNN or BBC – there are articles there cut and pasted (more or less) from Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg and so on. These same articles you could probably find on NBC, Digg, ITV and so on. Aggregation sites are doing well not because they are collecting or delivering news as such, but because they are filtering news which appeals to a particular demographic (eg The Register). As for mainstream media, what is the public offered by having the same news available in the same form in hundreds of places?

What will eventually happen is that a great number of news organisations will merge or quit (increasingly frequently across national borders), and yes a lot of their valuations will diminish. We’re already starting to see this, but there will be much more consolidation to come.

This is exactly how markets _should_ work. Right now the public is consuming free news because consuming it in one place has no advantage over consuming it in another. And if somehow the market ‘agrees’ simultaneously to set prices for news, there are anti-trust laws in most countries which forbid this (and for good reason).

Once the excess supply has dried up, the remaining value will become much more clear. What and where that value will end up, right now is anyone’s guess.

Posted by Elliot Mackenzie | Report as abusive

While I will be sad to see the impact on jobs through the decline in print media, I loathe the way politics are carried out through our papers. I refuse to buy any at all for that reason, and don’t read free ones either. I’m not interested in their politics agendas.

Posted by Richard P | Report as abusive

People havent much changed in thousands of years. They just want their needs met, newspapers used to be an essential help in meeting those needs. Now TV, the internet, and mobile phones plus games consoles are doing a better job in many areas.

When I asked my 14 year old son how many of his mates have iPhones, he looked at me as if I were stupid (and he may have a point) and said,’ all of them!” (I then bought 10K of Apple shares…seriously!)

Correct spelling isnt important to his generation, having the right accessories and fitting in is. He spends most of his free time on Xbox Live chatting with friends all over the world, he doesnt see barriers, practices his leadership and cooperation skills with his mates and has a lot of fun. He is risk adverse and hardly ventures into town probably because his short life has had a background message from the media of war, terrorism, drink, violence, knife crime and drugs problems…so his choice is to stay in and get his needs met through XBox live and I dont blame him.

As for newspapers, as the former Pic Editor of the Yorkshire Post I am afraid I have witnessed first hand the innability and lack of business accumen from the Regional Media Managers who fail to see they were in the business of communication and making money out of new opportunities and not in flogging newspapers to people who have little need for them anymore.

There is a huge vacuum opening up at the local community communication level that will be filled by an organisation smart enough to see the opportunity and large enough to exploit it..possibly Tescos.

Tescos could distribute a weekly mag/directory through their stores offering discounts and special offers whilst serving the community and holding its attention with 24hr new media broadcasting accross multiple distribution channels….. I for one would pay for a text that told me what was happening in town tonight.

Its only a matter of time before the sharper smarter minds deliver what the Newspaper industry is failing to do. The sooner the better!

Posted by Giles Rocholl | Report as abusive

As far as I can see, most people under 30 have stopped reading, especially anything which is `too hard.’ Complex ideas, analysis, even big words, are seen as a distinct no-no in mainstream media now. It is pitiful to see intelligence despised, and even feared, in Britain. It’s more important to be a celebrity, to be famous for something, than almost anything else for the next generation. Tragic.

Worse still, a general diminishing of people’s attention span can be seen across the media, from `Scooby Doo’ plots in TV soaps/dramas, to the 2 minute news stories pasted across the web. News, like Jacko’s death, or the riots in Iran, spreads like wildfire, then burns itself out after being blogged, twittered and Digged to destruction by every numpty with a forum-based axe to grind.

The depressing future is one where the government controls what we read, or watch, spies on us from the cradle to the grave and there is no independent media.

If you look at UK advertising spend on radio, mags and papers now, possibly 30%-50% of the regular advertising is public sector funded. Large private companies have diversified from TV and press ads into a mix of e-marketing, junk mail and targeted online sponsorship. The supermarkets, white goods and car retailers won’t be coming back to press ads like they did in the early 90s recession. Without advertising from a diverse base, there can be no truly independent newspaper, magazine or website – they are beholden to their main source of funding.

10 years from now, an army of part-time, semi-literate bloggers and tweeters will spread local news `content,’ on behalf of big companies, councils and the ever-watching government. For peanuts rates of pay. Those who regard journalists now as lying lowlifes, willing to invent stories for cash, aint seen nothing yet…

Posted by alastairw | Report as abusive

Dear Writer,
your article for the above topic is very interesting.
After going through of your sayings,i came to conclude that,major newspapers initially providing free access to their newspapers,Later on they want to make it as online charges.
Once their membership has been increased through internet,they want to get profit for internet service.
This is not a good sign.
Are they not getting revenue from advertisement,government notifications and from big business houses.
We are paying good amounts to broadband connectors.
Let all newspapers will do it by free on internet.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

Evidently the meaning of “There is no free lunch” has been lost to the present generation.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

The biggest problem with “free” news is the lack of credibility. When you’re reading a newspaper, you have reasonable confidence that the information therein has been fact-checked and edited, but on the internet there are no guarantees. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between a legitimate news source and a blog. Sometimes blogs are legitimate news sources.

Having said that, I haven’t touched a newspaper in almost 20 years. They’re large, unwieldy, the print rubs off on your hands, and there is no search function. Computers are a far superior medium for news delivery, and it’s too bad the newspaper industry failed to adapt fifteen years ago when they could have maximized their profit potential.

In my opinion, the television news industry has a similar quandary. As metropolitan areas have expanded to include hundreds of square miles, the “local” news has become increasingly less local. I don’t care about murders and burglaries three towns over; I want to know about my town. As for the world news, we used to have seasoned, intelligent news anchors, and we now have buffed, Botoxed morons. I’d rather get my news from someone who actually understands what they’re saying.

The news industry, much like the auto industry, simply failed to read the writing on the wall. They’re dinosaurs.

Posted by Lisa | Report as abusive