Do you think free content is a viable path for independent content producers?

by Jason Preston on August 20, 2008

When I blogged last week about successful online business models, Working Reporter left this wonderful comment:

I’d like to see newspapers try your ideas, but I’d also like them to try the enormously unpopular idea of actually selling what they make, either directly through online subscriptions or indirectly, perhaps by partnering up with a cable company and becoming a “premium channel” like HBO.

It seems to me like the main problem with offering free content, even alongside ads, is that it makes it much harder for the author (or artist) to eat.

Proponents of free content suggest that between advertisements and t-shirt sales, content creators don’t have to worry. But online ads show little promise of increasing in profit margins (although scale works just fine), and not everyone can be in the t-shirt business.

So if books are free, how do authors make money? Signed copies? Speaking sure, but only if you’re a really big draw.

What do you think, is free content a viable path for independent content producers?

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Why the Financial Times can charge for metered content — Eat Sleep Publish
09.22.08 at 10:41 am


1 Working Reporter 08.22.08 at 8:32 am

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Maybe, if the ads get smarter.

Right now, the focus is on changing the content to make it cost-effective; making it shorter and snappier to appeal to a younger generation, in the theory that if the audience scales, the CPM rate will rise enough to pay for the content.

But what if instead of changing the content, we changed the ads? What if the online ads became smart enough to associate themselves with specific content, instead of specific sites? What if they were able to distinguish between kind of content use — from fair use quoting for criticism and debate through out-and-out republishing — and divide their own revenue accordingly?

Smart ads should be the holy grail — they encourage and support content creation while permitting all the mashing up and repurposing that makes the Web powerful. The only losers would be the people who want to use other people’s content for their own profit, and I have no problem with them losing.

Imagine if the NY Times received ad revenue not only from its own site, but also from any site that reused that content — more from aggregation sites who just republish the original article, less from sites that are using Times content to build new ad-supported work, none from everyday bloggers wanting to comment on the news on their own ad-free pages. Hard to know what the numbers would be, but judging from how wide a single Times column spreads right now, I suspect the income would be significant.

2 Jason Preston 08.22.08 at 10:17 am

@Working Reporter – you are 100% correct here. And I like the term “smart ads.” They are definitely the holy grail for a lot of the problems, including to a large extent digital plagiarism.

The one issue is that splogs and spam republishing sites have to actually decide to HOST an ad network on their site, and they’re unlikely to do that with a network that withholds money based on the simple, annoying fact that they didn’t write it themselves.

So while I agree that smart ads are the solution, I think the implementation needs to come from trusted ad networks, and it also means that companies need to stop buying ads on untrusted networks, which is the real problem…

3 Working Reporter 09.12.08 at 10:27 am

Jason: Just calling this to your attention — some interesting thoughts on paid content from across the pond.

4 Jason Preston 09.12.08 at 1:18 pm

Working Reporter – It’s funny – have some screen shots of the Financial Times “payment table” that explains how much access you get for what price sitting around on my hard drive somewhere. I remember looking at that and going “that’s cool, I wonder if that’s a good idea?”

So far it seems like it’s been a good idea. Thanks for bringing it back to the front of my mind! I think I’ll ping the FT and see if I can’t find someone over there who can talk about it.

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