It’s clear, for information content, free has won

Apropos of nothing, I want to hit on the paid content debate one more time.

In many post, but particularly this one, I’ve listed a number of reasons why paid content for news is a bad idea.

Here is more of the same, but restated: People won’t pay for information. Entertainment, yes; information, no.

If you accept the the premise that there are two types of content, informational content and entertainment content, it’s clear that paid informational content — such as news — is facing a much harder go of it than paid entertainment content.

People will pay to subscribe to HBO, but let’s see CNN try that model. You and I both know, that if CNN wasn’t bundled in with other channels, people wouldn’t pay for it (not in significant numbers). People still pay to see movies in theaters (one of the top activities of young people), and games, of course, are a big deal. but every type of paid news service is suffering (though there are exceptions, such as the New York Daily News).

I’ve wondered how high-priced paid newsletters are doing this days. There was a time when I subscribed to the Kiplinger California Newsletter, but with blogs out there like Rough and Tumble, why would I need it now (not to mention that I no longer live in California!)?

Such premium newsletters used to be a big business, but I would like to know how they’re doing now.

For example, within my own industry, with my corporate position, I would be the exact target audience for a $1,200-per-year newsletter subscription. But in a blog-driven, RSS-fed information world, why would I pay for media news and information? I get more for free (and high quality) than I have time to read now, so why pay for something that isn’t likely to tell me anything I don’t already know? I can tap into some of the smartest, best informed minds in the industry any time I want, and all for free.

The mixed bag in paid content trends: music, where CD sales fall and there is more free music than ever, but music still sells; and books, where informational books continue to sell.

With music, the greater diversity of choices and distribution outlets favor the consumer, driving down prices.

With books, we’re still seeing ways in which digital distribution is disrupting traditional informational book channels, whether it be encyclopedias or computer programming reference books.

The only time I buy an information book now is either the author has struck on a great premise (exhibit A, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson); or online resources haven’t yet caught up to the specialized interest I need. Here, my example would be a book on New York gardening I bought recently. I can find lots of online information about gardening, but more general that what I needed to start out my New York gardening experience.

Even with these variants and exceptions, the paid model for information content is on the wane.

Advocates of paid content can’t be happy to know that the two big “success stories” of paid news are in jeopardy. If Murdoch succeeds in acquiring WSJ, expect the paid walls to come down. And rumors are the NYT is about to drop TimesSelect (which as we’ve discussed before isn’t really working).

When I hear or read of newsroom types advocating paid content, it’s clear that the main impetus isn’t research or careful thought, but more, “we should force people to pay, damn it, because what we do is important and special”

But in looking at digital distribution trends, it’s clear that the power to force people to do anything, especially with their money, is a pretty dumb business plan.

We need a well informed society. If we are going to continue in that mission its going to mean: Free content. It’s going to mean free content that is easy to obtain through multiple platforms and channels (not just our own) and often in segments that are shorter, more digestible and linked to alternative view points than what newspapers have traditionally offered.
The future is free. It is distributed. Now we just need to figure out how to pay for it.

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