Content already is free

Oh, I’m so tired of the ages-old argument that we are all thieves because we don’t pay for content.

My friend Mark Potts trots out the meme once more. The standard arguments are there:

Why would publishers give something away online that they charge for in print? Why leave money on the table?


In fact, several publishers are doing very well charging for content on the Web, even as the majority of their brethren avoid it like the plague. Exhibit A: The Wall Street Journal. . .


But that quality content is expensive to create, folks. You should be paying for it, even if you don’t want to. That’s just not a good enough reason. There’s no constitutional right to freeload. The First Amendment guarantees a free press–not a “free” press.

This argument makes it seem as if it’s our fault that we’re not paying. Shame on us. Well, I don’t buy it. For neither is there a constitutional right to avoid the essential economics of media and change. The arguments not given in this plea:

First, this is a post-scarcity media economy. 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.

Second, charging consumers cannot come without marketing. Subscriber acquisition costs are high; just ask any magazine publisher (or AOL, for that matter). In the back-of-the-envelope calculations on the value of the very limited number of paid services, I never see lines for acquisition costs and churn.

In addition, the value in media is — and always has been — the relationship, not the sale of the physical product (the manufacture of which also brings considerable cost not included in these envelope-calculations). If you cut off that relationship, you diminish your value — just ask those Times columnists trapped behind their wall — and cede that value to your many new competitors. Indeed, if you are really smart, you’ll realize that our “consumption” of that “free” “content” — our remixing and tagging and linking and recommending and correcting and behavioral-data-making — adds value. But you have to be quick enough to capture it.

Who cares whether content wants to be free? It already is. Deal with it.

: Mark comments and emails and says I’m being unfair; he’s not criticizing readers, he says, but publishers, for leaving money on the table. We still do disagree about that. I criticize publishers for still whining about circ revenue and not figuring out the ways to go with the flow and find their cash flow in new ways.