The price of freedom

I’ve just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece, Priced To Sell, on the proposition that the future according to silicon is free.  Gladwell’s starting-point:  the Dallas Morning News proposed licensing its content to Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. Amazon wanted 70% of the subscription revenue, leaving the Morning News just 30%. What’s more  ‘Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it on to anyone else they wanted’.

‘Information wants to be free,’  is the old mantra, which Chris Anderson in his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price considers to be as much a law as the law of gravity.

A few comments.

The curious thing is that out there not only the hardline bloggers and but also the panicking publishers (do books, newspapers, have a future?) seem to believe it. Yes, we all love free, and there are good experiments to prove it. But free is also a fad. We quickly grow tired of free. We learn not to trust it, and we realise as do shoppers the world over that free and quality, quality of content and quality of choice, don’t readily go together.

There’s another downside to free. It overwhelms us. We want guidance. Where can we find the good stuff? All those bloggers out there want to be heard, but we quickly find they add nothing to the debate, and if they do have something to say it’s lost, because they are operating outside those time-honoured structures which allow us to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. (OK, among the chaff has always been wheat that got missed. But that’s another issue.)

‘Free ,’ as Gladwell puts it, ‘means never having to make a judgement,’ and that would be (already is) a nightmare world. He also pours scorn on the idea that because the information can be free all the technology that delivers it will be free as well. Information is only a small part of the cost.

Put simply, quality information, information which answers your specific interest and needs, information that you know because of its source (publisher and writer) to be high quality, will cost you more. Technology may streamline delivery and make it possible to identify ever-smaller markets, but it won’t remove the need for quality or for selection.

So, let’s turn it round and re-phrase.  ‘Any old information wants to be free, quality information wants to carry a cost,’ and that cost is the payment for the quality that guarantees the information is worth reading. In this new age it’s taking time for practitioners in the publishing world to work out what that cost will be, as online competes with paper, and e-ink with the real thing.  But the hard truth is now and will be: if you want serendipity and distraction at the end of a hard day, check out free. If you want something to challenge you, to stimulate, entertain rather than titillate, to add quality, then you’ll pay, and pay willingly.

Why are we still putting up with all this talk of free? Ads on a website will generate enough revenue… Amazon is only a staging-post on the route to free…. and all that. For once I’ll support Rupert Murdoch. He’s doing the right thing charging for the Times Online. In this case it’s online and print sharing the same cost: online needs to contribute its full share.

Quality has value. Free is a parasite and no parasite has any value, any real existence, unless there’s a host..

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