Eating my own dogfood

I’ve said before that there’s nobody better at analyzing the plight of newspapers than Alan Mutter. But Alan and I disagree about one thing: the likelihood that newspapers will be able to charge for their content online when their information—news—is quickly commodified and when there is no end of free competition. Mind you, I’ve never said that charging for content is bad. If you can charge, mazel tov! My argument is instead that charging is unlikely to succeed and talk of it lately is another unfortunate example of news executives grasping at straws rather than building the future. I’m writing my Guardian column right now about this game of whack-a-mole and Alan and I are set to debate the topic in the Australian press magazine Walkley.

But, as I said, Alan and I disagree, and to make his point, he parried with his sword, pointing out the irony more than once on his blog that I’m charging for content myself (want to buy my book?).

Tim Windsor and Matthew Ingram then pick up their swords and argue with Alan. Ingram says:

This no doubt seemed like a slam-dunk argument to Alan. After all, as he notes towards the end of his post, Jarvis even admits in his book that he is “a hypocrite” for not just giving his book away online (although it’s worth noting that you can read the entire thing through his publisher’s website, if you so desire). But I think Jarvis is actually a little too hard on himself in that quote, and that Mutter draws almost exactly the wrong conclusion from this case.

Why? A number of commenters on Reflections of a Newsosaur, including my Nieman colleague Tim Windsor, make the same point that occurred to me: Jarvis has been writing about his theories on content online and new business models, and how more companies should think like Google, for months, and possibly even years. He has been giving those ideas and conclusions away virtually for free (apart from some measly Google AdSense dollars) for most of that time. Anyone can get Jeff’s content whenever they want. But if you want it packaged in a nice and convenient way, such as a book (either the regular or the Kindle kind) then you have to pay.

Jarvis’s content giveaway on his blog, as several people have noted (including Jarvis himself, in a comment on Mutter’s post) effectively marketed — and possibly even created a market — for his ideas, both in book form and in the form of consulting gigs and speaking engagements. Those are ways of adding value to that content. While there isn’t a direct corollary with newspapers and other media outlets, the concept is the same: give away content, and then find ways of adding value to it — packaging it in a convenient form, for example, or adding to it in some useful fashion, creating a relationship around it — and then monetize that.

Alan asks the question “What Would Jarvis Do?” in a sarcastic way, but it’s actually not such a bad question after all.

Thank you, Matthew and Tim.

Here’s what I say in the book about writing a book:

I confess: I’m a hypocrite. If I had followed my own rules—if I had eaten my own dog food—you wouldn’t be reading this book right now, at least not as a book. You’d be reading it online, for free, having discovered it via links and search. You’d be able to correct me, and I’d be able to update the book with the latest amazing stats about Google. We could join in conversations around the ideas here. This project would be even more collaborative than it already is, thanks to the help of readers on my blog. We might form a group of Googlethinkers on Facebook and you’d be able to offer more experience, better advice, and newer ways to look at the world than I alone can here. I wouldn’t have a publisher’s advance but I might make money from speaking and consulting.

But I did make money from a publisher’s advance. That is why you are reading this as a book. Sorry. Dog’s gotta eat.
I already do most everything I describe above, not in this book but on my blog, where ideas are searchable and collaborative and can be updated and corrected—and where I hope conversations sparked by this book will continue. I believe the two forms will come together—that’s part of what this chapter is about. In the meantime, I’m no fool; I couldn’t pass up a nice check from my publisher, Collins, and many services, including editing, design, publicity, sales, relationships with bookstores, a speaker’s bureau, and online help. There’s a reason publishing is still publishing: It still pays. How long can it stay that way? How long should it stay that way?

While we’re on the topic of books, I wish a reader could acquire access to a book with one fee in all media – as a book, an e-book, an iPhone book – and perhaps subscribe to updates. But the system isn’t set up for that – yet.

  • Nice transparency, Jeff. Hadn’t gotten to that part of the book yet. Going slowly.

    Heck, why stop there with the one-fee? Also the audiobook, the powerpoint, free (or discounted) updates, a readers-only Website to debate every point (sure, that can be done here, but better organized off the book’s bones.)

    Or hey, maybe we just ‘subscribe’ to Jeff Jarvis, etc. Like a fan club, of sorts.
    OK, that’s too much;-)

  • I don’t think it is hypocritical for you to charge for the book. As noted most if not all of the book is available free. I think it is easy to confuse difference between the newspaper industry and book publishing industry. Newspaper has and always was a commodity industry. It existed in its current/previous form due to physics rather than intrinsic value. The nature of collating, printing and distributing the news was physically constrained on so a corporation was need to marshal and coordinate the resources.

    That physical difficulty has been removed with the advent of the web – exposing the current structure as unsustainable. The value of commodity news (and news itself was always a commodity it was the collation, printing and distribution that wasn’t) cannot sustain the physical infrastructure. In effect the web commoditised not the news but the infrastructure of news.

    Books are not commodity. People have a different relationship with stories (fiction and non-fiction) and authors. Reading a book you are in effect having a conversation with the author and learning about the author. It is the relationship that sets the value of books. Book publishers do need to realise how the web has commodified their physical infrastructure and adapt. If they try a rear-guard action to protect their physical infrastructure (and corresponding corporate infrastructure) then they will fail. As Clay Shirky notes, the web has reduce the barrier for group interaction. No longer does most of the workflow to bring a book to readers need to controlled within a large corporation. Instead it shifts to smaller players collaborating together across the chain.

    A brave new world for publishers but one that is not going to go away by ignoring it.

  • I think, it is very logical to charge for a book because you put your time and effort to write it and you deserve some remuneration for it. Those who will think that the book is useful must pay you a certain amount for your effort and there is nothing wrong with it.

    • James Blackman

      I wish newspapers would apply the same logic…giving away hard their journalists graft for free is pretty much as depressing as it gets.

      • But what of open source? Bill Gates was no goofbucket. Think about it, why should a newspaper fail? If they where to put has much effort into building a web location such as the effort put into twitter or facebook then Hard journalist would have a chance. The sun in denver did not think the internet would take them out, if 10 years ago they would have followed history andremembered that the 10 year old of the time would be the readers of today. There would be no questions now.

  • There is an interesting example from Neil Gaiman (, who has put his whole book American god´s online which resulted in an astonishingly raise of sells offline.

  • The prob with Kindle was the Web access, which is not quite universal at the right speeds, but enough people are using computers to access the web that if common standards were sorted and one or two publishers broke cover and got with the eBooks thing on an iTunes model (with the ability to print out unlocked) the river would roll, and the piubshers could turn a corner.

  • You nailed it when you said he’s wanting to charge for something everyone else is giving away. All the rude ad hominems won’t change that simple fact.

    You can charge for the book because (presumably) there’s a market for Jeff Jarvis books and you have a monopoly on that.

    Your blog isn’t itself making money but it is helping you make money.

    In the case of your newspaper publisher friend the path to solvency is there but it’s ging to involve opening his newsroom to the community and letting them write the news. He can make money serving them (figurative and real) lattes.

    • Amen, Dave. The newspaper needs to be a platform to help people to do that and in that it can succeed. That’s the ultimate WWGD.

  • Eric Gauvin

    You could have published the book online with very low overhead costs (and it would be much “greener” too). It would have been a great experiment to see if you can make money. I’ve read comments from fans of your work that buying it in book form was just a technicality and a token of their appreciation and that they would have put money in your “tip jar” anyway.

    As you said, you are a hypocrite (and this is the part that’s very “Jeff Jarvis”), but being a hypocrite is okay as discussed and explained and buried away in all kinds of convoluted blog posts and comments upon comments that someday later Jeff Jarvis can refer back to in another convoluted argument. This weakens the power of your words.

    I doubt you’ll add “hypocrite” to your bio, but I’m pretty sure “Author” will be at the very top.

    • Point made, Eric. I’ve already agreed with all that. When your kid is old enough for college, let’s see how readily you turn down a very enticing advance.

      • Eric Gauvin

        “Who needs a university when we have Google?”

  • Maybe a book is like a t-shirt. Bands these days make most of their money from working for a living doing concerts. But there still are lots of fans that want the uber expensive t-shirt! I know my daughter buys a ton of them… :)

  • invitedmedia

    anyone else find the timing of this latest “charge for content” drumbeat rather ironic?

    the new york times has a piece on 5 newspapers that will share content.

    if that ain’t a commodity…

  • Who said there is anything wrong with getting paid? Sell a book if people want to buy it. Books are not built on a production line in the way that a newspaper or magazine is. Books are not repetitive (well hopefully they aren’t). As a results book publishing will tolerate inefficiencies for much longer than the publishing of magazines and newspapers. Producing those things are expensive and the free market will drive the costs down when it can.

  • All this talk of hypocrisy is missing the point. There is nothing wrong with selling content online — the point is that it is usually a stupid thing to do. If Jeff can get higher revenues by selling a book than by publishing it free (advertising supported) then that is what he should do. The interesting question is not whether Jeff is a hypocrite, but rather whether or not he’s done the smart thing. (I think he has.)

    It is clearly the case that at least 99.9% of newspapers and other MSM should *NOT* try to charge for their online content. This isn’t a moral argument. Rather it is a statement that given low barriers to entry and tremendous competition in the space, it is a really stupid thing to do and will result in unnecessarily low revenues. For the .01% of newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal (to which I subscribe), the case is not quite so clear cut. But, they are such a tiny minority they can be usefully ignored.

    The newspapers should be focused on trying to figure out how to make “free news” pay. The sooner they stop whining that life would be easier if they could charge, the sooner they’ll build businesses that are sustainable and profitable. The market is what it is — there is a greater demand for news then there ever has been before. There are vast quantities of money to be made in the “free news” business. Stop crying over spilt milk and start making money instead.

    bob wyman

  • Check out TechCrunch’s latest product — for which they charge $295/year! You should know TechCrunch as a very popular source of “free news” about the technology business. Up until now, it has offered all its content for “free” (Advertising supported.) But now, it is offering it’s first “Premium Content” — a “Year in Review” report that will have market much smaller than the free website yet at $295/year has a chance of being profitable. This could be a smart move. See:
    TechCrunch built its reputation on ad-supported free content, then began secondary revenue streams by hosting technology conferences, etc. Now, they are charging for premium content. Thus, they are approaching the marketplace from multiple angles. They charge where it is possible to charge and give “free” where that is the right thing to do. This is smart.

    bob wyman

  • Reg

    Two cents on the common ground here: OK, People should try to charge for content if they can – Jeff can, so good for him. Most newspapers can’t, at least for commodity news, so too bad for them.

    But there’s nothing inherently good or evil about either stance.

    And so while we shouldn’t be snarking at Jeff for managing to make money off his content (good for him!), nor should we be snarking at news organizations that are trying to charge for content. They may be misguided, or fail, but they’re not necessarily lazy clueless whining curmudgeons who should be shot. Even if some of them are.

    Whining about lost ad revenue, wishing for deep-pocketed philanthropists, or fantasizing about a cartel that requires payments to news organizations doesn’t help anyone. But neither does dismissing out of hand, as a number of posters do (not on this thread, but in general), any suggestion of charging or subscription fees. Let’s examine them all.

  • I want to see this future world in which writers spend years honing their craft, developing their sources, building an audience, slaving long hours over ideas they’ve nurtured, and then they give the results of their work away for zippo to the public cause, apparently, you guys thinks it’s stupid and tacky to expect payment in return for expertise, talent and effort. I also want to see a world in which I get into the movie cineplex for free (cause films aren’t a physical thing I can own, right, and I can see them with my eyeballs, so that must mean they’re mine, right?) I want to live in your world where the logic argues that anything an artist or academic produces should be totally available at no cost. That will include concerts, plays, lectures and hey, college classes. Right? It’s all just “content” and babble and ephemeral stuff. It’s not like sometihng “real,” like a couch or a burrito. Using your logic, journalism, art, music and literature will be just happy little hobbies pursued by the lucky folks who have leisure time away from their real jobs. Unfortunately, the world you guys think will be so darn swell will offer very little in the way of diversity or *quality* content, because only hobbyists and the wealthy will be able to provide a stream of free, mediocre, propaganda-oriented, corporate-sponsored music, books, news and analysis.

  • bowerbird

    the contents are free. the _container_ costs money.
    and people understand, if the container is _physical_.

    but if you want to charge for an _e-book_, or an
    iphone-app, you strain the bounds of credulity…
    (you shouldn’t charge for them anyway, since they
    are “marketing tools” for sales of the paper-book.)

    but there’s no hypocrisy around charging money
    for a paper-book. not if the price is “reasonable”.

    > I wish a reader could acquire access to a book
    > with one fee in all media – as a book, an e-book,
    > an iPhone book – perhaps subscribe to updates.
    > But the system isn’t set up for that – yet.

    it’s easy enough to make that happen for your book.

    (it’s easy to make it happen for _any_ book, actually,
    so it’s just a scaling matter to do it for _all_ books.)

    make your text available — the page-images are
    already exposed on the web, by your publisher —
    and i can set up everything for you this weekend…


  • Lucas Grindley

    Here are my favorite lines from this thread:

    “I think, it is very logical to charge for a book because you put your time and effort to write it and you deserve some remuneration for it.”

    I sighed deeply after that one, sensing all the angry reporters who apparently don’t put enough time and effort into their writing to deserve anyone paying to read it.

    And then this: “The interesting question is not whether Jeff is a hypocrite, but rather whether or not he’s done the smart thing.”

    See, I think that misses the ENTIRE point … which is that Jeff regularly and repeatedly advises others to make their content free. The point is he’s giving bad advice. And it’s advice he doesn’t live by.

    The sad truth is that the old newsies we all so love to dismiss have a good point — which is that some types of content, even if it’s written by (God forbid) ink-stained reporters, is worth paying a subscription to read online.


    It’s an urban legend that only the likes of WSJ and other mythically talented folks can charge for content. It’s just not true.

    You can charge. There are consequences for traffic. But you CAN charge. And you CAN run a business that way if you charge for SOME content, not all. The WSJ does this on a daily basis.

    Don’t oversimplify their business strategy by dismissing it as just for elite news providers. Instead, ask yourself — what should you charge for and what shouldn’t you charge for?

    The answer, as early commenters explained, is whatever you can get away with. That’s what Jeff’s doing, even if he won’t admit it.

    If you ask yourself what Jeff would do, you’d charge for some content on your newspaper Web site. It would be the content that very few people are very interest in reading. In other words, it’s the content that creates the fewest advertising impressions.

    • Andy Freeman

      > See, I think that misses the ENTIRE point … which is that Jeff regularly and repeatedly advises others to make their content free. The point is he’s giving bad advice. And it’s advice he doesn’t live by.

      Actually Jarvis doesn’t advise people to make their content free. He advises them to not charge for content unless someone is likely to pay for said content. He points out that a lot of content is available for free so trying to charge for that content is likely to fail because consumers will go where they can get it for free.

      If no one is likely to pay for your content, Jarvis’ advice is to give it away or to start producing content that someone will pay for. If you insist on ignoring the “or to start” alternative, his advice does look like give it away, but that’s because of the characteristics of your content. People who have content that someone is likely to pay for hear something entirely different.

      Jarvis does live by the advice that he actually gives. He charges for content that people are likely to pay for and gives away content that they probably won’t pay for.

      • Lucas Grindley

        I wonder if you could direct me to a list of newspaper content that Jeff says people will pay for?


  • Michael Lee

    I dont know if hypocrisy is the primary issue. The title of the book is What Would Google Do. The general theme is that companies, industries and business models (everyone except the legal and religious industries) would be better served (though general economics are never addressed) if they just considered what Google or some other enlightened next generation company would do to “change” their business. The assumption in the book is that this approach leads to better things. Then, when the issue of why you didnt take this approach when publishing this book the answer was “Sorry. Dog’s gotta eat”. That is the flaw. The book presumes that doing what Google would do leads to better things in a blind way that has no consequences but when explaining why you didnt do it you fall back on the consequence of needing money. I think its probably a fair assumption that’s the reason why the companies, industries and business models dont do things differently whether it is good or bad.

    The book preaches salvation in an ideal world but even by your own admission the world’s not perfect.

    Maybe its a follow up but contemplating how things could/should change without a more detailed analysis of the impact is only half the story. The easy half. The hard half is the part of how to make it work. Rarely do people ever have debates about where we are, may be more about where we want to go, but we almost never agree on how to get there. WWGD deals with where we want t go. Finding the bridge to get there is the challenge.


  • freddy

    Re the issue of whether or not newspapers can charge for content…

    The premise:
    No content posted on the web is unique.
    A web user can find multiple sources for any type of content.
    Whenever content is available from multiple sources, at least one source will be free.
    As soon as any type of content is free, no one can expect to charge a fee for providing the same service.

    The porn objection:
    Porn should be a prime example of the commodification of information.
    There may be differences between porn site A and porn site B.
    If so, they are subtle.
    The repertory of porn is limited, involving a more or less fixed number of sexual acts. Nor are porn “stars” more attractive than many amateurs, whose performances are available for free.
    In this case, no porn site should be able to charge.
    Yet many sites are pay-for-play.
    If porn can charge for its services, a journalism site, which offers thorough research, special insights and/or exceptional style, should have no problem selling its content.

    The restated premise:
    Although a lot of information on the web is a commodity and has little or no financial value, some users will pay for content, which they consider to have special value.

    The corollary:
    Special sites don’t need Google or aggregators. You want quality? Pay for it.

  • Eric Gauvin

    For the record (according to google), there are only 7 links to the free online version of Jeff Jarvis’ book.

    5 of them are from versions of the publisher’s site.

    1 is from friendfeed

    1 is from this interview from LT (where they seem pretty skeptical about your ideas):

    I realize there are many other links to marketing “sound bites” littered all over the internet, but the fact that you’ve offered the book online for free is essentially a false statement. It’s also not search-able (google can’t get in there), and could very easily have been. (but I suspect your publisher didn’t really want to give the book away for free, as in “free”

    So much for free…

  • Jonathan

    I think the interesting question is what newspapers would need to do to write books — or, ideally, smaller but less expensive e-books — which they would market through their free content, just like Jeff did.

    What would they need to change to do that? Some thoughts:
    – develop or encourage their writers to build strong relationships with their audience
    – discuss the book-writing process in the course of their free news reporting
    – have a mission that people felt compelled or enthusiastic to support
    – NOT simply republish content from their newspaper: it would need to be original and suited to e-book format, whatever that is emerging to be

    Incidentally, I assume that Jeff also charges for consulting and speaking engagements. Nothing wrong with that. Could newspapers do that too?

    Lastly, to build on Dave Winer’s point, could newspapers enable people who aren’t professional journalists do these things too?

  • Jonathan

    Huh to which?

    – Newspapers creating books they could sell? Thomas Friedman has sold a few books. Should the Times be making money from that?
    – Newspapers offering consulting or speaking?
    – Newspapers enabling non-journalists?

  • Andy Freeman

    > I wonder if you could direct me to a list of newspaper content that Jeff says people will pay for?

    I don’t know that he has, but that’s not particularly relevant. Assume, for the sake of argument, that few people will pay for certain kinds of content. The existence of such content doesn’t prove that Jarvis thinks that all content should be free or even that no one will pay for any content. (He clearly believes that some folks will pay for some of his content, even though he also seems to believe that few, if any, will pay for other bits of his content.)

    I find the emphasis on Jarvis mostly irrelevant so let’s leave him out until the end of the argument.

    Assume, for the sake of argument, that very few people will pay for certain kinds of content. Does it make biz sense for folks who produce that kind of content try to charge for it? Does the answer depend on why almost everyone won’t pay? If it doesn’t make biz sense, is there any reason to believe that charging for content that people won’t pay for will succeed? Does the answer to any of these questions depend on what kind of content we’re talking about? (For all of those, if so, how and why?)

    If you want to argue that “enough” folks will pay for (some) newspaper content, great. Have at it. Let’s see the evidence. Better yet, let’s see the money.

    Why does it matter what Jarvis says about any of this? Do you think that things will be different if he changes his tune?

  • Andy Freeman

    > If porn can charge for its services, a journalism site, which offers thorough research, special insights and/or exceptional style, should have no problem selling its content.

    Note that SOME porn sells. Other porn doesn’t.

    > The corollary:
    Special sites don’t need Google or aggregators. You want quality? Pay for it.

    Umm, wrong. A corollary is something which follows readily from a previously proven statement. The notion that some porn sells doesn’t imply that porn sites don’t need Google or aggregators. Some may not, but some may.

    The value of an aggregator or a search engine to a site is not determined by whether the site sells content.

    The “You want quality? Pay for it.” is something of a non sequitur in this context. (It’s not necessarily true either. Why should one pay for quality that is available for free?)

  • Intriguing idea, Jeff, of paying once for content and getting it on all platforms. (You can, sort of, if you buy a CD, then copy it digitally, then convert as you want. Or, by scanning something you buy … there are workarounds, though kludgy and time-consuming.)

    But it’s a minefield. Your wish reminds me of something a Sprint exec said to me, complaining about why content producers, such as of TV shows, felt they should make money off their shows the first time they’re shown, and then, again on all platforms. Why, he asked, should they charge a user to see a program on TV, then again on a cellphone.

  • Symone

    There is nothing wrong with it. Its Delicious.