The Death of Free
Saturday, July 04, 2009 at 11:11 AM EDT
When Chris Andersonâ€™s Free! article appeared in Wired at the beginning of last year, the financial crisis was still shallow enough for his thesis to look bold but almost plausible:
Journalism is more subject than most things to this downward pressure on price, and publishers put everything into the free model. Pretty much every local and national newspaper gives away their content for nothing online (bar the Financial Times, because as Clay Shirky points out, â€œfinancial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients donâ€™t want to shareâ€, so itâ€™s also one of the few kinds of information that can be successfully paywalled).
In the free economy, newspapers are fully-realised advertising delivery services, their content (or â€œjournalismâ€) functioning as the lure to get readers looking at the marketing material. But then, around the middle of 2008, a rumbling downturn became a full on recession. Fewer advertisers had the budget to subsidise journalism. Free had faltered, and the reviews of Andersonâ€™s book have reflected the unkind conditions. Closures, job cuts and commissioning freezes sped up alarmingly, and Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corp would be charging for content.
There was a general feeling that Murdoch was making a mistake by going against the course of history. But, out of all the branches of media, newspapers and magazines have been unusual for their passionate embrace of free content. The music industry (at least in its major incarnations) has pointlessly fought and scrapped with its fans to get them to pay physical-object prices for digital products. But the games industry â€“ even though it makes a product thatâ€™s almost as vulnerable to rip and burn as words and music are â€“ has reacted more coolly.
Many developers have taken the line that a certain amount of piracy is inevitable and non-fatal. They use DRM, but donâ€™t invest in it at the expense of their relationship with customers. They acknowledge that gamers can get other games for free. They acknowledge that the games theyâ€™re making are distributed illegally through P2P networks. But their marketing teams work hard to ensure that the companyâ€™s own portal is the one that gamers want to go to when they download the game, eagerly cultivating the loyalty of their customers. Newspapers and magazines could supply that sort of service.
But they can only escape the death-grip of Free if they offer something worth paying for. And, as David Simon pointed out, newspapers have been treating journalism as an avoidable expense for decades:
The problem for print journals is that theyâ€™ve been exploiting Free stuff for a long, long time before Anderson offered it as the future. The lure of churnalism is that someone else has already done the work for you. Copy, pictures and editorial line all arrive without the expensive business of researching and reporting. This obviously works fine when it comes to maximising profits in a closed marketplace â€“ but when the internet means that marketers can reach the public without needing to pay the newspaper as an expensive middleman, and the public can see that the same story is appearing in paper after paper, neither party is going to feel much need for newspapers.
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s disingenuous for someone like Steve Connor to protest that his failings should be overlooked because commercial pressures make his own bad reporting inevitable. His failings perpetuate those commercial pressures, and means that journalism is increasingly likely to be a leisure activity of the impassioned or a tithe on the desperate and ambitious. Anyone who wants to save professional journalism â€“ the kind of journalism that, as Simon says, â€œrequires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contendingâ€ â€“ should be interested in cultivating better journalists.