Regular readers know that I rant and rave about how content really doesn’t want to be free — and shouldn’t be. But with the announcement this week that the New York Times would stop charging for access to its columnists and much of its archives, the clamor about free content roared back to life. Add in rumblings from Rupert Murdoch about maybe possibly making the Wall Street Journal content available online outside of a pay wall and the story gained even more steam.
Here’s my asterisk: access to content without a subscription fee is by far the most successful model so far. Especially for people producing commodity content, which for the most part is what newspapers today provide. By “commodity content” I mean stuff that readers can get elsewhere. If there are free options that are almost as good, consumers will clearly not pay for access.
But, you say, the New York Times columnists are clearly not commodities, like the news itself. Surely they create unique content from unique voices. Hardly. Some of them are great writers and occasionally they offer up some new insight. But for the most part, opinion writers are a dime a dozen. I have done plenty of op-ed writing myself in the past and I can tell you that, especially with the dawn of the Internet, there are plenty of places to go for good commentary without a subscription.
But even with this asterisk, I stand by my statement that content doesn’t want to be, shouldn’t be, and in fact isn’t free. The Times clearly hopes to generate additional advertising revenue by opening up their site to more eyeballs. And that’s great. Good content exists if and only if it generates revenue. As I have said in my New Media Cocktail e-book, that “revenue” may or may not be cash-based, but content producers must receive something of value in exchange for their time.
So hang that asterisk up but keep the value coming.