Content Wants to Be Free…But Writers Want to be Paid

John Whiteside posted today in response to a bit I wrote (which was a response to a Steve Rubel Post…) using the title “Content is Free but nothing else is” and he hits it right on the head.

To refresh, the big problem we face as “content creators” is that content is being separated from our delivery means. RSS, syndication, Google News, etc. is removing the message from the medium and transplanting it in all sorts of new and different places, and it’s not bringing the advertising so many of us rely on for revenue with it.

Howard Weaver at Etaoin Shrdlu has been discussing much the same thing, from the point of view of a newspaper editor at McClatchy, specifically in light of the demise of TimeSelect, and with it the prospects of selling online subscriptions in the news industry.

It’s all about advertising. As I’ve noted many times, newspapers don’t really charge for content anyhow. Since it (often) costs more to print and distribute the paper than we charge for subscriptions, we’re already giving it away in order to build an audience we can charge advertisers for.

But if we strip the advertising from the content, we’re left with the stuff that won’t pay the bills. He cites Scott Karp over at Publish 2.0 who notes that free content still isn’t free, it’s just a matter of who’s actually collecting the dollars.

What I realized is that, actually, it’s NOT free. To read the New York Times or any other newspaper online, I have to be connected to the internet β€” and that, in most cases, is definitely NOT free.

Broadband internet access at home is still in the $40-50 range. I pay Verizon extra to access the internet on my Blackberry. I pay extra to use my Blackberry as a tethered modem. Traveling to the New York the other day, I paid for WiFi access in TWO different hot spots because my tethered modem kept dropping the connection (not a coincidence I think). Companies pay for high speed lines for their employees. And we of course pay a lot for the computers and handheld devices that we use to access the Internet (e.g., iPhone).

So here’s a case study for you to work on. I have a content/community site that’s seeing decreased traffic, declining banner sales and a dramatic drop in Adsense revenue. We won’t be hiring the luminaries in the sport to write about it (we’ve done that, and now the content turns up all over the web).

My thoughts are that we’re going to need to foster the community angle. We’ll need to stop thinking like we’re an online magazine, and start thinking more in terms of value add components. My general list:

  • Widgets – we go where our readers go and offer them a service
  • User Generated Content – provide them better means to provide us with the content everyone else wants.
  • Mashups – make use of mapping mashups (not necessarily Google) to increase the user experience
  • Provide Social Levels – allow readers to keep some things among their friends. Go to an “Add Me” function that will provide an impetus for users to be of value to the community.
  • Del.icio.us – Think of ways to allow users to categorize, fold, spindle and mutilate content from around the web to our benefit. Don’t rebuild if you don’t have to – reuse and repurpose.
  • Sell what sells – online classifieds for the niche, sponsorship placement, etc.
  • Clearly identify our value proposition as it applies to: sponsors/advertisers, users/readers, and us, the owners/editors. If it doesn’t work for any one group, then it’s a failed model and it’s got to be fixed. Even though this is at the bottom of the list, it’s actually the first thing to do.

Is that the answer? I don’t know. Think about it and I’m open to suggestions. If anyone wants to approach this as an exercise and flex their gray matter on it, email me and I’ll give you the details.

6 Replies to “Content Wants to Be Free…But Writers Want to be Paid”

  1. Here’s the other aspect of this: content may not really be free, but content creators aren’t the ones getting paid. So the economic incentives to create anything drop.

    Funny thing is, all the sites that rely on other content to be useful need that content. So as the economics of content creation get dicier, what happens? Does the whole thing collapse?

    (It’s the old bloggers vs mainstream media thing, in which a million bloggers challenge the MSM… by repurposing content from it, without which they’d have nothing to write about.)

  2. Good point…it’s definitely not in the interest of the content sites to strangle the content creators in their cribs, but they probably haven’t looked that far down the pipe.

    The other big hairy secret is that we really don’t want to hear what most people have to say. We want to hear what relevant people have to say…and there should be a value in that.

  3. Let’s look at your content/community site problem.

    Going from an authoritative/byline model — pay an expert to produce content — hope it will attract enough impressions to fulfill an ad contract to a tag, share, express yourself model ….

    You tried that…. sort of. My guess — it means moving the community off of vbull and into something …. more dynamic and cool. Php boards are tired. Something facebookish is needed methinks.

  4. Yeah, my thoughts run the same way. I keep coming back to metatagging everything for slice and dice, but vBulletin doesn’t support it, and even though I might be able to extend it, if I do, it becomes a service nightmare.

    So where are the cool new apps? I hate to have to do a full “roll your own.”

  5. I’m wondering how, once you put some of these new measures into place, you drive the traffic to the site to see it.

    I’m not sure I agree about the facebook stuff … Perhaps, like David says in one of his posts, I’m too old to get it. But adding these new features is a cool idea, mapping and such, but I don’t know how you get people coming back if they already left.

    I would also ask, why are the traffic and ad sales declining? Was it good at one point and then changed? When? Why? Is the content becoming less relevant? Is this a tight enough (focused) niche where the user content is really useful? There are a lot of unknowns in this case that need evaluating to know how to proceed. I’d love to hear more.

  6. Yeah, I’m being a little cagey trying not to divulge sensitive information.

    The traffic has decreased due to a slowdown in the general niche – it’s past it’s high point and it’s not a growth niche. Also, the site hasn’t seen the love over the past two years from it’s owners, and had no new development for features. There’s been a bit of a diaspora, but that’s not the real problem. Everyone in this niche is experiencing a bit of a decrease.

    As far as ad rates, it’s partly due to dealing with the small guys. No national advertising, just local businesses – and they watch results like a hawk. Some of them can make community type advertising work, while others seem to think merely having a banner up is enough – it isn’t – the community flocks to those who are active within it.

    And yes, you hit the nail on the head, the niche is too tightly focused. That has bothered me for a long time.

    Give me a ring Chris and I’ll lay it out…

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