Freeconomics simplified for those who pretend not to get it

One of the most interesting aspects of how the digital revolution is impacting media is that newspapers have found themselves in a situation where they’re not just reporting on history from a safe distance, but also feeling its weight on their very shoulders, and this is proving to be a significant test of their journalistic ethos.

The last example of this is Helienne Lindvall’s article for the Guardian, where she polemized with the likes of Cory Doctorow, Chris Anderson and Gerd Leonhard for advocating free (music, media, films…) while at the same time demanding money to speak at conferences. The article really is as shallow as my words make it sound, and praise goes to Cory Doctorow for a polite and thought-through response, that even discusses the hows and ifs of his compensation.

I have too much respect for the Guardian to believe that they don’t get the debate around “free”, but it may be worth simplifying things in three points:

  • “Free” is not an ideological debate, it’s a practical one. I admit that authors such as Lawrence Lessig may mislead us, but the real point is not whether it is “right or wrong” to distribute content for free, but whether you even have an alternative. You don’t. Technology allows for free copying and distribution, and that’s what’s going to happen. We can legislate against it, but technology will always find a way around the law.
  • Given this, I understand that the government would try to enact the law as a matter of principle (but even then, for how long, when you can spend months working an operation to take BitTorrent down, and it takes a few hours to put it back up?), but the nature of businesses is not to defend principles, it’s to make money. And no business model was ever built on “what’s right”: it’s built on what a company is a capable of doing, and what consumers are willing to pay for it. That’s exactly what the advocates of freeconomics are saying: get paid for what people are willing to pay for, give away the rest as advertising. (By the way, this is also precisely what they’re doing. Chris Anderson gave away Freeconomics in e-book format for free, and charged for the printed version. At the end of it, he made money. And so incidentally did Wired.)
  • Let’s talk about the Guardian: what’s clear by now is that very few people are willing to pay to access online the same news they see on other sites in the same way they do on other sites. This leaves you with three options:

  1. Offer news that no-one else is offering, and that a certain segment of people is willing to pay for. It’s usually specialist information for affluent categories. This is not really an option for a generalist newspaper.
  2. Offer a different experience around the same news. This is really tough, as there are already some examples of engaging information experience available for free.
  3. Experiment with a new model. Chris Anderson would probably suggest you to stop paying your best journalists and start becoming their agent instead: give them as much popularity as possible, help them monetize it, and then take a share of the revenues.

As always, things are complicated. But the business essence of free is not. Free is neither a business strategy nor an ideological crusade. It’s the way some things are destined to be. “That’s technology, baby. Technology! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

Further reading here and here
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