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Free – The book everyone is talking about

July 14th, 2009

As newspapers whither and die, the debate has raged – can they charge for their content?

“No,” says Chris Anderson, the very forward thinking editor of Wired magazine and author of 2006 best-seller The Long Tail. It’s too late, the genie is out of the bottle and newspapers need to find new revenue streams if they’re going to survive. He makes his argument in his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. (As an aside, the book retails for $26.99 – a lost opportunity at turning this into performance art.)

Anderson writes that the digital age is exerting unstoppable downward pressure on the prices of things “made of ideas.” Since it is now possible to create content for practically nothing (key word – practically), Anderson argues that it therefore makes business sense to grow your audience by eliminating the barrier of making people pay a couple pennies. Give it away, and people will follow.

With that in mind, Anderson recommends treating all content, especially the expensive journalistically developed stuff in newspapers, as a loss leader. He says content providers need to find ways to generate revenue along the edges of their core purpose, which might mean selling t-shirts, or holding seminars, or whatever.

Quite predictably, publishers and reporters cannot fathom giving away the diamonds produced by their hard work. And another brainiac, Malcolm Gladwell, points out that creating an article for a couple of pennies multiplied by a lot of articles ends up costing a lot of money.

But it seems to me that Anderson is more right than he is wrong. Just because the folks who work in the newsroom think their work is valuable, doesn’t mean that it is. All the evidence points to the fact that people are no longer willing to pay for content. So newspaper providers can hold their breath and cling to the past, or they can find a new way.

Posted Under: Media & Journalism
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