The ability to charge for content especially in non-digital media like newspapers, magazines, and video was based on a limited supply of quality product and control of its distribution. DeBeers did it with diamonds, the movie industry with feature films. It is about controlling the market funnel, normalising spikes and managing value. However, the web and digital media have exploded the volume of product (content) and also all but destroyed the control of its distribution. The web has created and made available, more high-quality content, but more disruptively even more ‘acceptable’ content. The web has of course utterly destroyed distribution monopolies. Anyone can create and distribute content on a meaningful scale.
Search Engines in particular have become the intermediary of discovery and proven to be pivotal in transforming the economics of content. We may not always agree with the ranking of the results, we may object to the ‘pay to be visible’ approach, but we all use them and importantly, rely on them.
Newsprint started to charge subscriptions to let you access their columns, but this appears to have now failed. As there is always someone else producing similar content for free and even if the free content isn’t “as good as” the paid content, it often doesn’t matter because there’s so much acceptable content for free, it is become impossible to charge.
The New York Times is reportedly now poised to stop charging readers for online access to its columnists and other content. In 2005 the NYT began charging for access to well-known writers, including Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Thomas L. Friedman. However, the number of Web-only subscribers who pay $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year fell to just over 221,000 in June, down from more than 224,000 in April. As clever, talented, and insightful as the NYT columnists are, there are too many other clever, talented, insightful commentators publishing on the web for free.
The Wall Street Journal remains the last great bastion of paid content on www.WSJ.com. There are often articles we would love to read here, but not at the subscription price offered and with so many viable alternatives. The question now is whether Murdoch will now pull the plug and in taking control reposition the brand as ‘the best for free’.
The next question is with respect to whether short-form content will overtake the demand for long-form content online. Short stories, reviews, articles etc are easier to produce and post. Novels and longer works have to sustain quality throughout and are therefore harder to create. However, these being eroded by the proliferation of short-form text content? Blogs and social networking have also played their part and have created new “business models” not based on price, but personal branding.
This is a major shift in the valuation of content and starts to raise many questions. Can publishers control markets by monopoly? We have seen the constant acquisition and disinvestment strategies of the large players but is that enough? We have seen the impact of social sites on music and video and the changes these are having even on mainstream production.
Finally, we all know that the most influential company and mediator of this change on the planet today is Google.