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In the latest edition of TIME magazine, the former Managing Editor of the magazine, Walter Isaacson (current President & CEO of the Aspen Institute, and former Chairman & CEO of CNN) offers what he calls ‘A Modest Proposal’ on “How To Save Your Newspaper”. It chronicles a dilemma that has confounded traditional media ever since new media started to go mainstream – how to monetize content online, and how to compete with free content. No easy task as a a younger generation of tech-savvy computer users became conditioned to ‘beating the system’ and getting everything from mp3 songs, to dvd rips of movies, games, software and porn for free. Why? Because they could; it was the cool thing to do and nobody could catch them, at least until the RIAA went on its legal rampage over pirated music.

Throughout the evolution of free consumerism, I remember one of the major news magazine programs doing what they thought was a ‘hip’ exploration of the issue, and questioning some college students about the torrent-fueled downloading of music from Napster, LimeWire and other ‘free’ services. The question, “don’t you think this is stealing?” was asked, but the expected replies were never challenged or followed-up on. And in the peer-driven culture of college, everyone just nodded their head in agreement with the answer, “no, because everybody is doing it” . . .  the sort of personal absolution employed by earlier generations to excuse much more morally reprehensible mass misdeeds, because they knew deep inside, there was no excuse.

For a generation of overindulged, ritalin-fueled technophiles whose social DNA has been programmed and dulled by mass media, too much weed and a lack of emotional consequence for their zillions of computer game homicides, they just don’t get it.

If the news magazine interviewer had posed the following allegory, he might have arrived at different responses: “How is it you can afford to have a computer and an Internet connection? Oh your father’s paying for it. And how is it you can afford to go to college? No kidding, your father again. And what does your father do for a living? Ah, he’s an artist and owns a gallery. So if everyone started coming into the gallery and taking a painting  he’s done and walking out without paying for it and then scanned copies for their friends, how long do you think you’d be able to stay in college, or have an internet connection for?

The other part of the allegory is that in the current economic climate, no one is even going to the gallery, let alone paying for anything there. And the ironic exclamation point would be if the father was a musician who could no longer afford to send his little crook to college because of the illegal downloads.

But whether the intellectual property thieves get it or not, it’s become a bit late for the lesson to stick. What put a dent in illegal music downloads, was the real threat of traceable downloads and subsequent prosecution. Isaacson also acknowledges Apple’s iTunes store’s simplicity of aggregation, commerce and micro-payments as being a relatively painless way to transition from stealing to paying. The threatened prosecutions instigated the shift in the ‘digital values of music consumerism’, while Apple made the transition to paying easier.

The iTunes store also offers movies , TV shows and software (albeit the latter restricted to the iPhone), but illegal movie downloads continue to suck the ‘long’ out of the ‘tail’. Perhaps similar prosecution threats are needed on those fronts to force a similar shift in ‘digital values’.

In the responses to Isaacson’s essay at Time’s ‘Tuned-In’ blog, some responders say newspapers and other content producers need to emulate the iTunes model by modularizing content. One of the more disruptive features of iTunes was the ability to buy just the tracks you liked from an album, rather than having to buy the whole album. On the one hand, it disempowered artists who saw their albums as a conceptual whole, but empowered consumers who didn’t want to be forced to buy what they sometimes saw as ‘filler’.

The same holds true for online content, whether aggregated or originated.  Consumption models have changed because of iTunes, and producers of content need to mold new models that provide the freedom of editorial choice today’s time-challenged information consumers are looking for. The evolution of digital widgets to distribute self contained website links for content, products or services in more compact form may evolve a a new model for commission-based distribution that also involves the consumer – a sort of digital Amway.

But if the advertising downturn continues to the point that it erodes the financial foundations of free-content web properties, then the lemmings may be forced to migrate from the land of the free to the home of the paid if they want anything of value. The metrics may be so meagre, though, that until the payment model gains more traction, it would be hard for a lot of sites to be able to afford to pay those content creators who are educated and experienced enough to know the differences between ‘there, their, and they’re’. Unless the current economic climate forces that talent to settle for less.

An important point made in Isaacson’s piece, is the observed disconnect between kids who have been conditioned by the phone companies to pay up to 20 cents when they send a text message, yet balk at “paying 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.” Part of the reason may be the additional observation of the $20 to $30 consumers are already paying monthly for their Internet connection, leading one responder at ‘Tuned-In’ to wonder if the ISP’s should be forced to pay content creators in the way cable companies do, so that the cost of the content consumption is absorbed into the monthly broadband bill. Somewhere, the twain will have to meet.

But this pontification will close with the perplexed wonderment of why all those lemmings don’t realize the most obvious strength in their numbers: B-O-Y-C-O-T-T. Whether it comes to gas prices, broadband prices. or airline ticket prices, all it would take is a few well organized boycotts to shake the branches of these deeply rooted pricing monopolies. Perhaps it would give a whole new definition to ‘price-fixing’.

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It has been over five years since I first suggested the crazy idea of charging people for the content that we create. I wrote a book called “Selling Content” to illustrate that very point. I have written articles and blogs preaching the importance of charging for our content if we are to survive. In most cases it fell on deaf ears or on those who were quick to tell me why it will never work. Moving from a business that count customers to a business that find customers who count should be the essence of our new publishing model.
Well, tomorrow, TIME magazine runs a cover story on How to Save Your Newspaper by Walter Isaacson. The article by Isaacson states that the way magazines and newspapers are dispensing their content for free makes no sense. He says, “This is not a business model that makes sense.” I say, Amen. Read the entire article by Walter Isaacson here. The irony of course, is that I am doing the opposite of what Mr. Isaacson and I are preaching: letting you read the article for free.

From Samir Husni’s Mr. Magazine Blog