Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Free Digital Content Online was NOT Original Sin

Giving away content for free online could only be construed as “original sin” by journalism industry advocates, not by consumers, citizens, and learners. Representatives of that former constituency recently authored a report on journalism published by Columbia University. According to today’s New York Times article, “For Journalists, a Call to Rethink Online Models”:

They [report authors] are more bullish on the prospects of subscriptions for mobile access. They write, “If publishers really hope to expunge the ‘original sin’ of giving away content free online, they may be best positioned to do so not on the computers where they first gave away their wares, but on mobile devices that offer a more welcoming environment.”

What planet are these researchers living on? The article does not explain how the researchers came to this conclusion that the mobile space will somehow be friendlier to those who want to maintain traditional models of gate kept, “pay to come and eat it” content publishing.
To learn more about this apparently mystifying perspective on mobile content, I turned to the full report. It is thankfully, and somewhat ironically, available as a free PDF:

On page 79 of the report, in the chapter, “Paywalls: Information at a Price,” authors note:

Digital subscriptions may pay off in the years to come, but only if media companies can persuade consumers using new platforms—like smartphones and tablets—to adopt a pay plan.

What basis do researchers give for media companies possibly pulling off this sales feat? On page 81 at the end of the same chapter the authors explain. This is the full quotation which the New York Times unhelpfully truncated so the point was obsfucated:

The best chance to make headway with pay schemes is likely with a device that people can hold in their hands. For most mobile phones and tablets, a commerce system is already in place, and the transaction is straightforward. Moreover, consumers have shown a willingness to pay for content on mobile devices, whether that involves ringtones or sports videos. So, if publishers really hope to expunge the “original sin” of giving away content free online, they may be best positioned to do so not on the computers where they first gave away their wares, but on mobile devices that offer a more welcoming environment.

So since consumers will pay for ringtones (in some cases) as well as some sports videos, we are going to be convinced as a group to start paying hefty amounts (in aggregate) for online news? I don’t think so. The authors got it right earlier in that same chapter when they wrote on pages 79-80:

Even before the Internet, subscription revenue didn’t amount to much for most news organizations. Print publications often underpriced subscriptions because they believed they could lose money on circulation and make it up on advertising from larger audiences. Broadcast TV and radio were free, and fees for cable stations like CNN are buried in bills that make it impossible to discern the true costs of content. So in the old world, Americans weren’t used to paying much for news; in the digital world, news organizations have spent 15 years training their consumers to be freeloaders.

The big loss for news media publishers today isn’t subscription fees, it’s advertising revenue. As information consumers we are now able to opt out more easily of advertising with DVR recorded television, digitally streamed media as well as digital text channels. From the perspective of folks who are NOT mainstream media publishers or advertisers, this is a GREAT trend.

Free content online wasn’t “original sin.” It was simply content following the law of bits, explained well by Nicholas Negroponte in “Being Digital.”

These trends are disruptive to those desiring maintenance of the status quo in publishing and advertising revenue streams, but highly constructive to those of us interested in catalyzing a global learning revolution.

Which side are you on?!

Closing notes:

There certainly are plenty of opportunities for content producers to monetize ideas. The models are much messier and diverse than the older, traditional models, however. They are also more accessible to the masses. We need to be aware in our own choices and advocacy of the tradeoffs involved in promoting closed, DRM-dominated publishing and selling empires like iTunes and Amazon’s Kindle. Smart university publishers are choosing to cross-post content in different places and NOT put all their digital eggs in a single basket… Like iTunes. Look at how MIT Opencourseware cross-posts not only to iTunesU but also on YouTube and the open web as an example.

Finally, it’s interesting and relevant to note I was unable to copy the quotations above when I opened this PDF report in iBooks on my iPad. It may be that I’m not seeing the correct menu choices there, but it appeared iBooks wouldn’t let me select and copy text to paste elsewhere with this specific PDF file. For this ability, I had to turn to my favorite PDF reading and annotation utility, iAnnotate PDF:

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