News has always been free, and always will be

Jeff Jarvis misses the point, I think.

Most news is a commodity. And that which isn’t faces no end of competition. OK, so I can get the Wall Street Journal only because I pay. And, yes, it’s good. But there is plenty of other media coverage of business out there, covering mostly the same news. And I don’t have an expense account anymore. So I’ll find plenty that is good enough. If your content is not free, you have to compete with free, and that’s damned hard. Ask every classified manager who’s competing with Craig’s List.

If people wanted to pay for content, they would. But they don’t, and unless you count buying books or DVDs or other content that isn’t advertiser supported, they never have.

Newspaper subscribers have never paid for content. They have paid for delivery.

These days, I read thousands of words a content every day. I pay for all of it. But I don’t pay the producers or publishers. I pay my computer maker and my broadband provider. I pay for delivery.

It isn’t a matter of competing with free. If it were, Craig Newmark would already have put every newspaper classified ad department out of business. But most people aren’t looking for free; they’re looking for efficiency at getting the job done. In content, readers don’t care that they are worth pennies on the dollar online vs. print; they expect us to figure out the business model to make content available at no direct charge. They just want efficient delivery, and because they pay for their digital devices and digital delivery providers, they’ve done their part. Now we need to do ours: Find a business model that works. That business model won’t include charging consumers for news reports.

Jarvis is responding to Mark Potts.

UPDATE: Related, I just read this post by Cyndy Green about UGC, and she says: “Philosophically … in my gut … news should be a pubic service. The audience gets it free … ”

Now, I’m not saying this is any particular person’s position, but it seems to me that a lot of people who argue in favor of paid content are journalists who believe the news has a value that should be compensated … in other words, some variation of “high journalistic ideals” sort of thinking … but if journalism serves a higher purpose besides profits, shouldn’t it be free, stay free and always be free? Or to put it another way, do we want to deny equal access to news based on an ability to pay?

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6 thoughts on “News has always been free, and always will be

  1. Newspaper subscribers have never paid for content. They have paid for delivery.

    I might argue that prior to the advent of the penny press and the advertising-supported economic model in the late 1800s, subscribers actually paid for content. But those newspapers had very small circulation and a very difficult time keeping afloat.

  2. Well, yeah …

    And what does that tell you about the value of content, unless it is of a rarified nature (so well produced, or so unique, that it has real value)?

  3. News lives in a netherworld. It is both a commodity and a required public service – at least in this country. In order to have an informed citizenry which can make its decisions based on fact, we need objective news. Howard is correct in saying that we pay for it, one way or another. I argue that the content is priceless. Without “free” or free news we lose our freedom. I guess the question is, how much is the audience willing to pay – in inconvenience (watching or wading through ads) or cash.

  4. I think most journalists who think content should be paid for are thinking, this is how I’ll get paid. …. As print subscriptions go down, online advertising doesn’t match print advertising, and can’t pay the same number of journalists – and people who are paid to be journalists, who’s job it is and who can devote time, are as needed as they’ve always been.

    I think most journalists know that great journalism pre-dates the Internet, and have heard of alternative weeklies and the often great journalism within – and those are usually free.

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