Wednesday 29 July 2009

Should Internet Content Be Free?

This month's issue of Wired magazine contains two very different views on this issue. One is the perspective of Rupert Murdoch who has recently started charging for content from the Wall Street Journal. It is business model in which some access can be obtained free but anyone who wants regular and comprehensive access to the site has to pay a subscription. This approach has some merits and seems to be working to an extent. However, the high end users of this web site are not typical of the wider constituency of internet of even newspaper readers. Murdoch reckons that the era of free online content is at an end because online advertizing revenue alone will not replace the income lost from the declining print versions. Murdoch is certainly right about this but this does not mean that that the internet is going to change to accomodate the needs of News Corp to continue to maintain its existing income levels.
Chris Anderson, in the same issue argues for a radically new business model to replace the old one. His arguments (taken from his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price), suggest that traditional business models are not sustainable in this era. People are used to getting internet content free and production costs are now so low and piracy is now so rampant that anything which can be provided digitally is, or will soon be free. He argues that rather than trying to beat piracy, we should see pirates as just another marketing tool for our product. He argues, for example, that bootleg Gucci bags simply stimulate demand for real ones and that bootleg downloads expose a band to a greater number of people and ultimately sell more concert tickets.
Piracy, is not the only internet based threat to traditional business models, however. The other threat is generation of content. The tools of making videos, animations, etc - which would at one time have been restricted to those with a film studio are now available to anyone with a camcorder and a computer. Distribution and marketing are also free to anyone with a web site. Many people get much of their news and opinions from Blogs. An obvious retort to this is that the average blogger does not have the large resources or expertise of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. However, this perspective ignores the fact that much of the content of newspapers and tv news does not come from its own reporters. Much of it comes from news agencies, some consists of thinly disguised press release material and the opinion pieces are often little better than blogs. In terms of 'on the scene' reporting, more and more of this is being done by members of the public through Twitter and their camcorders. This trend is supported by the news media through intitives such as CNNs i-report. Increasingly news reporting is an interactive experience rather than a top down one. Sure, there is still a need for good investigative journalism but what is possibly not needed is the juggernaut publishing system and its old fashioned business models. Innovations such as i-report and the use of Twitter on CNN show a savvy approach to changes in the way news is produced and consumed
The internet is radically and forever changing not only the relationships between producers and consumers but also the roles. Consumers are generating content and writers and artists can interact directly with their audiences. The only part of the chain which no longer has a clear role is the traditional distribution networks. Much as Rupert Murdoch might want to turn back the clock and put the internet genie back in the bottle it is not going to happen.
The whole face of commerce and the buying and selling of resources, skills and labour is changing forever.

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