The Tragedy of the Content

Content seems to be moving away from the paid-subscription-plus-advertising model to an advertising-only mode, as was recently suggested by media magnate Rupert Murdoch. After Murdoch’s speech, Paid Content editor Staci Kramer reflected on the dynamic between news aggregators (also called portals) that assemble stories by crawling the Web sites of news gathering organization (incumbent media that support paid staffs). “In the long run, it’s in the portal/aggregators best interests to make sure the news producers survive — and thrive,” she wrote. It is true that without gatherers to create content, the aggregators could eventually have nothing to aggregate. But if the gatherers feel compelled to give away their content away to attract advertising, then why would the aggregators pay for it? And if the gatherers don’t get paid, then why would they bother to continue gathering?

A recent report from the Pew Research Center suggests the gatherers are already cutting back: “Roughly half of journalists at national media outlets (51%), and about as many from local media (46%), believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction, as significant majorities of journalists have come to believe that increased bottom line pressure is “seriously hurting” the quality of news coverage. This is the view of 66% of national news people and 57% of the local journalists questioned in this survey.” It all makes perfect sense if you’ve ever read the 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, by scientist Garrett Hardin. In it, he describes how herders who share a common field gradually, in their own self-interest, increase their herd size until the field is exhausted and their livelihoods are shattered. “Therein is the tragedy,” he writes. The same metaphor seems to extend to media. Everybody has an interest in grazing the field (aka selling advertising). It’s harder to make the case for throwing down seed to replenish the field (by hiring costly content-creators like me). It all gets back to the value of content. If content is destined to be free on the Internet, then who in their right mind would pay to gather it? The Wall Street Journal has been one of the rare outfits that has successfully charged for its branded business coverage — at least so far. When NYU professor Jay Rosen, author of the PressThink blog, interviewed WSJ managing editor Bill Grueskin, the topic of free vs. paid content inevitably arose. Here is an excerpt from that interview that begins with a remark from Grueskin: “Well, information wants to be free, as the saying goes. But the saying goes further than that, it turns out. Here’s the whole quote, from Stewart Brand’s book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT : (Now Grueskin references Brand’s words) Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better. (Back to Grueskin to close the excerpt) It’s hard to believe those words were published nearly two decades ago, because they so closely capture the essence of today’s argument.” I have only snipped a bit from an interview that contains many thoughtful insights on how one news gatherer envisions the new media commons that is taking shape. Do read the whole piece. Meanwhile, the discussion continued at the Newspaper Association of America annual meeting. The San Francisco Chronicle filed this report on that event. (Disclosure: I am a reporter for the Chronicle but do not cover these topics; any views expressed here are my own.)

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media