Media has changed in so many ways over the past fifteen years as the internet has blossomed into maturity before our eyes. The rise of the internet has broken business models of legacy media like print publishing and television by creating a free-for-all atmosphere online that makes information, quite literally, “free for all.”
The debate over pay walls and subscription services rages on. Will people pay? Should you create a free website with lots of ads that demean your layout just to try to break even on the pennies you get from your internet ads? Or should you craft a brilliant website with only a few ad partners and weave them into the layout as you would in print? Should you then put that brilliant well-laid out website behind a pay wall where it will get fewer eyeballs? Or do you lose a bunch of casual eyeballs in order to create a defined and committed audience to shop to advertisers?
Earlier this year The New York Times started a soft pay wall on their website meant to introduce the idea of a barrier without drastically reducing viewership. Many people see this as the begining of the “pay-wall creep” wherein the walls start off very soft and low, but as time goes on the viewing restrictions become greater and the price-points for online access of varying degrees (single article view, monthly web-only subscription, yearly web and print subscription) adjust until a market finally begins to take shape. I believe we will see this happen over the next ten years thanks in large part to the leadership of the Times.
But people won’t be paying for information in a strict sense.
Here’s why: there will always be reposts and summary stories ripping off original pieces, there will always be the ability to copy the text of a news article into your email and send it to all your friends. There will always be a way to get the information you seek without paying for it.
Information is free and will continue to be free. That’s the nature of information. So why do I think publishing will survive and thrive in the internet age?
Publishing has never been about information. Publishing is about point of view.
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As information escalates to the point of overload (as if we weren’t there already), point of view takes on increasing significance.
I could open my email right now and there’s dozens of people emailing me all different non-essential things: funny videos, links to thought provoking articles, pictures of a trip from a friend. But I’ve got a limited amount of time to devote to this stuff. So I’m going to look at the stuff from the people I care about and whose point of view I respect. I prioritize based on source.
The theory for the rise of social media rests on this exact same idea. You’ll follow your friends for news in the future because you respect their points of view. Information communities will be built around individual points of view linking to publications which represent a larger, more polished and more published point of view.
I say “more published” because there are varying degrees of publication, and I think this is the heart of the matter. If you think about it there has been a surplus of information and plenty of paper to go around for a long long time. The internet didn’t change the rules on that, it just lowered the barriers to entry. Now anyone can “publish” their point of view. But an article by a lone blogger doesn’t carry the weight of an article published by a news outlet.
The widespread availability of cheap copying machines in the 70‘s and 80’s lowered barriers to entry in print media in a similar way. Home produced Zines for niche interest groups could, for the first time, be run off and distributed with only a small investment.
But home-produced zines didn’t bring down publishing.
The digital age is not fundamentally different.
Point of view is still the stock and trade of media companies. People look to those with a strong established point of view to tell them what to think, and they always will.
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The old adage is that media sell audiences to advertisers. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, and the reason so many of the old guard have struggled to hang on in the digital age. These old media organizations don’t remember what it’s like to have competition. People forget that every major city in America used to have multiple major metropolitan newspapers, and what distinguished them was not the information they contained but the point of view they offered on that information. Often a city’s readership would be divided along party lines (much the same way MSNBC and FOX viewers are today).
Then they started buying eachother until almost every last city was down to just one serious newspaper and one subway rag. When that consolidation happened those newspapers forgot what distinguished them; not that one folded book-style with splashy front-page photos and the other folded lengthwise with serious editorials, but that they were an organization built by and around prominent people who sought to advance a particular point of view.
To say that media sell audiences to advertising is to look at the business from only one side. What media must also do effectively, in order to have those audiences, is sell a point of view to a group of people.
So, what’s your point of view worth?
If you’re losing subscribers every year it might be time to consider the value of your point of view in a competitive market.
Or, you know, we could keep blaming that darned internet.