Content wants to be paid for

Content wants to be free like communism works, like sex is just for fun, like a few days of snow disprove global warming. That the web’s existence makes all content free is a Brooklyn Bridge most of us have bought, but it just ain’t true, as Erin Kissane makes clear in Content is Expensive at

Go there, read it, and understand why (just like newspaper reporting and books) web content costs money and must be paid for or subsidized. Either that or it must serve some secondary benefit that brings in the bucks: for instance, a free web design blog might lead to paying web design gigs for its author, or so they say.

Then read Part Two: Paying For It, where Kissane considers each of these methods of subsidizing content “and how they relate to our work as content and editorial strategists.”

(Of course there will always be web content that is purely a labor of love. That is why we love the web. And it’s kind of sad, quite frankly, that you almost can’t write “Shit My Dad Says” or create a LOLcats page purely out of love any more; that even stuff tossed off as a laugh ends up being “monetized.” By the way, whoever came up with that word should be deathetized by beatingization. But I digress.)

30 thoughts on “Content wants to be paid for

  1. Well said. As Kristina Halvorson wrote in her book, “High-quality web content… is one of the greatest competitive advantages you can create for yourself online.” So why should something so important always be given away?

    I would also argue that the opportunity to reformat web content for mobile delivery (as native apps) is helping to prove the value of content. That is certainly what I have been learning via collaborations with my iPhone app clients. They are thrilled to be able to make an honest income from publishing content that has high value for targeted audiences. The resulting micropayments, aggregated from global sales, are truly astounding.

    Mobile web content: I suggest that people prefer to buy it in its purest form for a modest amount, rather than paying the far more expensive price of getting it for free but at the high cost of being confronted with way too many advertisements on the screen. Perhaps this the new paradigm for monetizing web content?

  2. Everything in life is an exchange of energy. More energy expended, more value that exchange has. No cost, little value. Greater the value, more cost is required. I use this principle when I told my 16 yr old daughter that she had to buy and pay for her own cell phone. The result: She was careful who she gave her number to, she used minutes wisely, and she took very good care of her phone. This never would have happened if she hadn’t had to exchange it for the energy it took to pay for it. When it comes to content that isn’t free, you will attract those that truely find it a value and are willing to expend the energy to aquire it.

  3. Deathetized by beatingization: on a internet that’s already chock-full of great Zeldman quotes, that’s definitely a standout.

  4. I feel like we all know this and (mostly) agree, but the problem is always how. People have been promising solutions like micropayments for over a decade now, and there’s still nothing. Meanwhile, newspapers, magazines, etc. continue to fold, due to a lack of a solution.

    And we all know how easy getting people to pay for something they’ve gotten for free is…

  5. Actually, content does want to be free. It just doesn’t want to be free like the examples you gave (well, maybe “sex is just for fun”).

    It wants to be free like police protection and firefighters. It wants to be free like democracy and freedom. Content wants to be paid for automatically, like taxes, but not each and every time we want to benefit from it. It should not be divided up into monetized pieces, it should be paid for en masse. It should be another freedom that costs money (like they all do).

    Basically, everyone should be able to access all content in existence once a fee is paid. It should not work like a subscription that limits you to a subset of content.

  6. Huck said: “It should not work like a subscription that limits you to a subset of content.”

    This flat rate implies one of two things. Either:
    1) you consider all content is of equal value (like say, the headline on this blog vs Avatar) or
    2) since you’re not metering the purchases, you need to meter the usage in order for content creators to be paid fairly out of the revenue pool.

    The practical advantage of metering purchases (at least of ‘retail’ content) is that you don’t have to worry about metering the usage (I’ll ignore airplay fees for now!). Do you have a good, simple, cheap system handy for monitoring ALL media usage? Or don’t you think that content creators need paying?

    Like JZ says, there will be stuff that’s done as a labout of love, but it’s a tiny fraction.

  7. Oh hi! What a nice surprise on a Saturday afternoon. Thank you so much for the kind words.

    For me, the posts you’ve linked to were a way of solidifying my thoughts about what and why as a precursor to the big, interesting paid content question that I think our industry needs to step up and solve: how.

    And yeah. “Deathetized by beatingization” is going on my wall in blackletter.

  8. The question probably isn’t whether content wants to be free… nothing that takes energy should be free… but are we, the consumer, willing to pay for it? A good test would be to put Zeldman’s Daily Report behind a paywall for a year…

    I guess its less about logic and a right to make a living… and more about market forces and the expectation of free (or very cheap) that we’ve become caught up in as consumers.

    In short… something is only worth what the other party is willing to pay for it. Not what we value it at ourselves. I can go dig a hole, for example, and send a bill for 2 hours labour but if nobody is willing to pay for that hole then the value of the hole is zero dollars, not $80.

    So, I guess in my 2 cents the question itself is fundamentally flawed.

  9. Realistically you have to assess your individual information’s value to a specific market segment willing to pay for it. Somebody has to value your $1 of information at greater than $1 or equal to $1. That’s basic business.

    The assumption here is that all information is worth the cost of production in an apples to apples comparison. It’s clearly not.

    My advice is that you should develop a business model prior to embarking on a business venture… and if paid content is in that model then it needs to be quantified / justified along the way that persons X with income Y are eager to do transaction Z because of A,B and C. Otherwise its just bad business.

    No producer of any product in the world is entitled to be paid for any effort. Its the market that decides your value to them – they have the cash and they must be willing to make a transaction.

    Sorry to earth anybody but ask yourself what your content is worth and to whom? Not what you think it is worth to you… but really worth to the market. No business should be running on the idea that “in a fair world someone should pay”.

    So try to sell what is valuable content… and don’t even bother with the rest. Do market research… if no buyers then think about not producing it in the first place. Maybe? OK that’s 4 cents… time for me to shut up.

  10. I’ve found good you bring this subject because I don’t buy the C. Anderson thesis about content wanting to be free.
    I like Chris and I like how you made contrast with he’s idea but in the end, content doesn’t give a damn about money. It’s only us who do that.

    An interesting question that I found is:
    How do we can clean the money related obstacles that the content has in order to spread?

  11. As a student we have to pay for a lot of essays as we are no longer allowed to use sources as wikipedia or twitter. Which is strange, because wiipedia is a encyclopedia in a controlled enviroment. But nevertheless I’m of the opinion that sourcing nowadays is difficult for us as students.

  12. In a world of comments, Twitter and Facebook clients have a hard time to value content. They only really value it when one actually ask them to contribute with it — then they see that it actually take both time and therefor money. It becomes especially clear when one hands them guidelines for the content they are about to contribute with.

    The bottom line is that people in general (not us — no) have come to think of content like crap. Content is just something anyone today can publish and therefor content hold little value. It’s just like in any type of business — if there is a lot of something it’s individual value will get lower.

    Today it’s all about trust. If you have some sort of trust for someone (like a friend or a large publishing coorporation like a newspaper or whatever) you will trust the content and therefor it’ll gain value. Else it will have next to zero value until one finds it useful in some way.

    This comment would never have been written if this blogs author would have had zero value to me.

  13. Pieter, as a post-grad student my understanding about wikipedia is that you cannot ensure on a minute by minute basis that every page is correct… some instances of famous people’s biographies being wrong, for example.

    So as an academic resource it is always going to be an invalid resource. However, it is good for a general overview and a great jumping off point before starting a more formal research methodology. Next stop Google Scholar… and then hit the journals and databases :)

  14. Hi,

    Since the subject of that post is the price of web content, I think it would be interesting to know how much it cost you to run your blog on a monthly basis. That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time : what’s the cost of popularity for a writer on the Internet ?

    I think the main strength of the Internet is that there isn’t the readers on one side and the writers on the other. We’re both writers and readers now, some are doing it as a day to day job and others are doing it for the love. If you’re making people pay then you create a contract between you and your customers, you have obligations : to write on a regular basis, etc… Not sure everyone is willing to jump on that train of responsabilities.

    It’s because content is free to acces that it makes people want to write for love. It’s an easy process, you just write an article and publish it on a website. You don’t have to struggle with customers, don’t have to struggles with editors, payment administration, etc…

    I must say that most of the things I read online that interest me are almost all produce by people writing for the love.

  15. Sylain:

    the main strength of the Internet is that there isn’t the readers on one side and the writers on the other.

    Totally agree. Aside from a couple of newspaper sites, most everything I read on the web is produced for love, by people I could have dinner with. The DIY character of web publishing feels very punk rock, very fanzine—at least it certainly started that way, and the stuff I love still feels that way, except that it is more polished.

    Certainly when I started this website, I did it because I could. The idea of making money from this site via advertising didn’t occur to me until I’d been publishing the site for over ten years. Yet, although I did it just for love, I accidentally acquired career benefits that accrue to everyone at Happy Cog (and there would be no Happy Cog if I hadn’t been blogging and publishing web tutorials in 1995, hadn’t started A List Apart in 1998, etc.)

    Just like in real life, the selfless things we do for love, things that bring out our best selves, end up bringing back good karma tenfold.

    The discussion here and on Erin’s site is not to say that a person who writes a photo blog because they love photography needs to get compensated financially. Content created for love—your favorite content and mine—isn’t really part of this discussion.

  16. Times and Sunday Times to charge from June is Rupert Murdoch’s latest strategy…

    That’s 1 pound per week times 52 weeks totalling 104 pounds per year (optimistically predicting 5% of current readers will subscribe), hardly a micro-payment business model. To an audience that is used to free – what of price elasticity of demand?

    I think we will see that even the Times is going to meet the reality of “what content is worth to produce” versus “what content is worth to the market” with this bold move. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  17. Jeffrey, you’re totally right when you say :

    The discussion here and on Erin’s site is not to say that a person who writes a photo blog because they love photography needs to get compensated financially.

    What I wanted to say is that the content produced by love is offering what I’m looking for in term of informations others aren’t. The writers are providing quality content because they are writing for love, because there is passion. For me, that’s what keep people reading your words and eventually would made them pay to get it (I know few paid journalist who can write like this) because they are “independent experts” of the subject they are talking about.

    I’m looking for their opinion, their perception and the vast majority of big newspapers/magazines have lost their opinions because they have to please everyone (I’m french, so I’m speaking about the French ones). They are just general information providers. Does it still makes sense now that we can read thousands of articles about a specific subject online just by typing some words in a search bar ? What are they offering that the others are not ? Opinion makes the difference for me.

    We are asking if people would be willing to pay for the content, and how, but if I’m reading newspaper online it’s just because it’s a quick way to know what’s happening in the world, I’m not really looking for their analysis anymore. Others are providing much more valuable information because they are “independent experts” writing with a “total” freedom. I agree that content can’t be totally free, the press has to reinvent its content strategy as long as thinking about making people pay. You can find every possible payment solutions, money won’t come in if you don’t bring readers on board. I want to read about people who think like me but although about people who doesn’t, I want to know their opinions, I’m not seeking for one and general only source of information anymore.

    Now that some says we have access to too many information, it’s the writer who is the real value, it already was before, but I think it’s more important now that we have the choice and we can even speak with them directly like I’m doing with you (and that’s invaluable).

    Like Erin says, monetizing content makes sense if :

    the information is surrounded by obviously and uniquely valuable analysis and context, as with the financial newspapers.

    I think “A list Apart” is one of the best exemple of an online Editor.

    The paywall model goes against the “linking” model Internet is based on. What if Erin’s post was behind a paywall ? I couldn’t have access to it, not sure i’d pay for it, it only depends on the trust I put in the referrer (like you). If your content is exclusive then it means you don’t want to play with others. What makes the information powerful is the confrontation, Google has perfectly understood that I think.

    The data should be open. What I’m willing to pay for is the ease of access, the selection of someone I value, someone that has opinions, makes “for me”. That’s the work of an Editor in my opinion. Now that “the printer” isn’t in their hands anymore, an Editor shouldn’t be able to say what people can or can’t read, they have to value the fact they are supporting content that will interest me. Too much information mean I don’t have time to find the valuable one. Would I have read Erin’s site if you didn’t talk about it ? Surely not, I didn’t know it even existed…

    Don’t know if I’m still off topic, but that subject is really interesting !

  18. Heh. When I first clicked on the Content Is Expensive link, I got a database connection error. It took me a few seconds to realize that wasn’t intentional.

  19. the web is free, always will be. good luck to anyone attempting to change that…

    But nearly all content needs to be paid for one way or another, whether “free” with ads or behind a paywall.

  20. Great Post.

    Great comment: “But nearly all content needs to be paid for one way or another, whether “free” with ads or behind a paywall.”

    Prof. Francisco
    Criação de sites em Curitiba

  21. While I agree with the premise of your article you start it off with some ridiculous comparisons. Sex isn’t for fun? You must be doing it wrong, or at least with the wrong person. Global warming may not be disproved by a few days of snow, but it can be questioned by the fact that there as many scientific facts against as there are for. I realize you wanted to start it off good and controversial since the topic itself is rather controversial…but you can do better.

  22. The way I see it is that there already was an economic model in place to provide content providers income: advertising. Newspaper subscriptions classically paid the paperboy (girl, person…argh) and the real money was in the big layouts. There was a reason Herb Caen was next to the big Macy’s ad in the SF Chronicle for years. The problem was this: at the dawn of the internet (sorry that just sounds preposterous, but I can’t think of anything else) so many new, fresh and fascinating ideas came *directly* from zines and indie publishing, that advertising was a foreign, almost anathematized concept. To that add the academic origins of the internet and a general distaste for corporate anything by early adopters and we have a quandary that we are all facing in our aging years. How can I as a 47 year old, now arthritic leftie, who has to shop at one of the most overbranded, annoyingly cute organic stores where I could spend, let’s say, my whole paycheck, who is questioning the very foundation of what being liberal is — how do I interact with commerce in an area I love for being virtually commerce free?

    I work in music and that industry has charged merrily into its own oblivion, missing the cues, not taking the bull by the horns, and consequently, thousands of musicians, big and small, get ripped off every day by the seemingly harmless act of someone “sharing” music. And online sales, while profitable on some levels, is a completely different animal and an entire workforce is relearning how manage income.

    Yet, from Payola to the very unscrupulous origins of music publishing, that industry is rife with its own integrity issues. I think we all need to choose to sit down together and reconstruct the model. Live with some annoying facts (ads pay writers, period) and figure out what we can all do to make this work. Cuz I’d like to get back to work, selling my partner’s music and maybe even some of my own writing, but I’m not giving it away. I got rent to pay.

  23. “But nearly all content needs to be paid for one way or another, whether “free” with ads or behind a paywall”

    Agreed. And considering what kind of money is made on both our browsing behavior and personal information I think it’s time the word “free” needs some redefining.
    I mean, seriously, when was the last time you got something was REALLY free that
    a. wasn’t stolen (ie warez, movie downloads etc)
    b. didn’t steal from you (personal information, time, tracking software etc)
    c. wasn’t a present from a family member/friend

    Free, in my book, is something with NO strings attached. None. Free is only in my benefit. And when I narrow it down like this, there’s very little in the sense of free left.

    Currently the word “free” is very remeniscent of how wise fish perceive free floating worms in their pond

  24. But nearly all content needs to be paid for one way or another, whether “free” with ads or behind a paywall.

    Of course but as an end user, I expect free and limitless content. Banner ads are a given for any news source website, with exception being the BBC but this is paid for by the tax payer anyway…

    For instance, I wouldn’t pay for something such as Wikipedia, (ignoring for a moment that it isn’t 100% reliable, lets pretend it is) as all that content is available somewhere on the internet, I just need to look for it. If someone wants to provide a service where what they sell is in effect, an easy 1 stop shop access to content then good for them, but it’s still free elsewhere and I wouldn’t pay for it.

    Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the internet isn’t a bookstore and as such content grows organically. What is in a book today will be common knowledge tomorrow and available for free to anyone who has access to the internet. Why would I pay for a service when there’s a free alternative.

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