Will Write for Food

Robert G. Picard, a Swedish media critic, argues that journalists deserve low pay, because for the most part we do not do anything that someone else couldn’t. As he notes, “the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others.”

Picard’s argument is seductive. It seems immediately right. Look at the market for journalism — it seems obvious that the problem for newspapers comes because advertisers pay the bills, not readers. Many kinds of advertising, especially classifieds, work better online, and cost far less. That’s why a site like the New York Times can draw 20 times as many readers as the paper, at a fraction of the revenue.

Most forms of media build a model that uses content as a loss leader to draw readers that can be sold to advertisers. It looked like the Internet would allow writers and other media content creators to bypass publishers and do their own distribution, reaping the rewards of whatever advertising they can sell. Instead, the economics of advertising online mean that aggregators, like Huffington Post, act as publishers, and only the most heavily trafficked content creators see any revenues. The rest work for free. There are exceptions to this, like Drudge, but the rule is that online, you get rid of the loss leader and just get people to produce free content. They get their 15 minutes, the aggregator gets the money.
But here’s where Picard is wrong. He assumes content has value, if only it’s good enough.  Yesterday I ran into the smartly opinionated John Landry, former CTO of Lotus and now an angel investor. He was talking about how cloud computing will destroy the value of most computing infrastructure, just as it has ripped the money out of music, software, is starting to take it from video and, of course, is dealing traditional journalism a death blow. By and large, he’s right. There is less and less that one needs to pay for. Yes, people pay 99 cents for iTunes songs and iPhone apps, for now. But how long will that really last?
Back in the mid-1990s, when I got involved in online journalism, I used to joke that the Internet was a Communist plot, because it made everything free. It’s not funny anymore.

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