Friday, July 10, 2009

You Get What You Pay For

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Priced to Sell; Is Free the Future?” in the recent issue of the New Yorker brings up fascinating issues, ones I dealt with my entire career – should “information” be “free.” Part of his article is a critique of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price,”which argues that given the inexorable downward price pressure in technology, there is an inevitability that the content itself will become free. Anderson suggests that musicians learn to make their money “through touring, [and] merchandise sales” and newspaper writer retool to become coaches to unpaid writers who will work “for non-monetary rewards.” Fame, crumbs?

No doubt the newspaper industry is under siege, and is probably the most threatened during this Great Recession. But Gladwell’s scathing dissection of the YouTube “business model” points the way to the inevitability of two universes, a subscription model such as the successful Wall Street Journal, one that offers a level of professionalism or specialization people are willing to pay for and then the free one like YouTube, a commodity aimed at a mass market, supported either by advertising or by the provider being satisfied by cornering market share/eyeballs (Google in the case of YouTube).

The New York Times had attempted a subscription model for its Op-Ed Columnists, miscalculating that this is the unique value of the Times. That value, though, as with the Washington Post, is its gestalt and by charging for a part of the paper and not all is to devalue the sum total of its parts. Pay per view is not feasible but dedicated followers will pay for access to such well established icons.

Similarly, newspapers that do not have a national standing, have an opportunity to expand their coverage of local issues – to create the specialization needed to buttress their own brands. Of course, content is not the only issue, it is the subscription model itself. Giving print subscribers nearly free access to the on line version is one approach, particularly as technology such as the iPad become ubiquitous. The pricing of an online version (only) is the more critical issue for these publications, and that will be dependent on their own distinctive market position. The devil is in the details, but Gladwell’s article is a good reading.