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Monday, 6 July 2009

No laws for free information

If you want all your news free of charge, can you retain quality news outlets?

Several UK media have seen their offline circulation plummet as more people access content online. But despite higher online readerships, many media are reportedly struggling to make money online as content users blank out a lot of online advertising. And that means shedding writers and relying more on standard fare from news agencies and press hand-outs from PR.

Does it matter?

Well, yes, if you want to generate high quality media coverage sitting alongside material people actually want to read. Material that packs the editorial endorsement factor that is a powerfull recommendation of your company to thousands and sometimes millions of others.

Yes, it matters if you want an editorial endorsement that you can wear like a badge of honour for the next squillion years: "as seen on BBC TV" or "as seen in the FT", with links to the coverage or a hotlink to a quote from it.

Yes it matters if you want a media recommendation your business can be proud of, because someone has to pay editorial staff to create the content that you are proud to be seen in, and edit the publication to maintain its reputation for credibility.

A media recommendation where anyone can get a look in is no recommendation at all, regardless of whether the news source is on or offline.

So it matters when an influential author like Chris Anderson writes a new book, called “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” arguing that there is a law dictating that anything made of ideas, like information, gravitates inexorably to being free - that it 'wants' to be free. And he doesn't mean unfettered free speech. He is talking about free of charge.

Now free of charge, when it comes to information usually translates into a vastly reduced budget to invest in good writers. You would think that PR people would welcome that as it might open doors for news releases to be used almost wholesale. But I know I am not alone in being more concerned with the bigger picture. Sure, getting news releases taken up is one thing, but a swing towards accepting unrestricted content reduces the impact of coverage on the site to the point that it would be worthless from a PR point of view.

Anderson is editor of the popular Wired magazine and author of the best-selling book, The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand. In that book he argued the Internet offers everything to everyone, and trailing in the wake of success, a tail of endless near misses can now have a market. That never convinced me entirely. I can see that there is more of a long tail than before the Internet, when physical shop space limited the choice on offer. But I've always thought that assuming an upward graph line will continue forever is just that: an assumption. So I couldn't see how the tail of unlimited demand would continue indefinitely. Surely the near misses would start drifting further off the mark and become irrelevant?

In today's issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews Anderson's latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price and finds similar holes in the idea that a tendency towards free information is the only force affecting pricing online.

Gladwell is no stranger to big ideas. He was named one of the top 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2005 and his books: The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers have all been international best-sellers.

Gladwell takes Anderson's examples of how we all rush to free services, so they cost a bomb to handle the demand, like YouTube, forcing owners to retreat from the abundance thinking model that propels free information. Universal free information is often of such questionable quality that even YouTube pays for professional content provide from TV stations and film production companies for quality content to keep users happy and deliver audiences for advertisers.

Gladwell says there are plenty of models where information is running in just the opposite direction from free - in drug companies, for example where the high costs of trialling to meet regulations need to be recouped. Or where both models are used: the New York Times puts its content up free on the Web site, but the Wall Street Journal has over a million subscribers paying for online access to its content.

Gladwell predicts Apple could make more from selling iPhone downloads than from the iPhone itself and may one day offer the phone free to boost download sales (yes, please!). Or give away downloads to boost the phone sales. Or carry on charging for both.

He concludes that the only law is that "the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws".

And that's good news for those who want quality journalism to continue, because quality comes from an editing process to sort the wheat from the chaff. Plus sources to provide information and run around getting pictures set up and arranging interviews (PR people). Plus someone to write it up and place the information in context - and that understanding of context comes with in-depth experience in a sector.

All that means skilled intelligent human intervention - and with humans come minor factors like a liking for food, a need for clothes and a roof over their heads, plus obligations to care for family members and spending money.

In short: great media needs to be paid for somewhere down the line.

And great media is an inspiration and a challenge to PR people to come up with issues-led ideas and spokespeople that can stretch to fit the news agenda, add to the debate and showcase their company's talent. And when they do, they get all the conferred credit that editorial endorsement can bring.

Used well (and I've seen an astonishing number of businesses fail to capitalise on good quality coverage of their businesses) good editorial endorsement is like a prestigious award and can be referred to almost indefinitely thereafter.

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posted by Penny Haywood Calder at


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