Thursday, January 21, 2010

Them that's got shall get,
them that's not shall lose

Broadcast radio is on life support, and broadcast television has a bad cough.

Newspapers are in the dementia ward, yelling into phantom telephones for ghostly operators to get them rewrite. Meantime, some of the various publishers still standing are hatching plans for their dwindling readership to pay up to peruse a degraded product online.

Some folks, Jerry Del Colliano of Inside Music Media among them, think the "paid Internet" is the wave of the future. That there was a free lunch, but soon there won't be.

Soon enough, the thinking goes, if you want to access newspapers on the web, you'll pay up. And if you want to listen to podcasts -- the programming formerly known as "radio" -- you might well pay up there, too.

YOU'LL PAY to hear music, and you'll pay to get the news. And that's all after you will have paid a pretty penny for home and mobile Internet connections and then paid small fortunes for the devices by which you connect.

Says Del Colliano:
Now some companies are considering withholding content from the public and/or search engines like Google and dare to make the public pay or the distributor pay.

And that's what I'm seeing.

I know this is controversial because I, too, have become spoiled getting The Wall Street Journal and New York Times for free instead of the whopping $900 a year it costs for print subscriptions to both.

Rupert Murdoch is now challenging the free Internet -- Murdoch is the owner of News Corp that publishes The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Competitors have tried to charge money for subscriptions and have failed -- The New York Times being one of them, although the Times is said to be close to approving a paid model.

True, there are online niche publications that charge subscription fees but they are the minority and their content is specialized. And Murdoch himself was thought to be tinkering with making the Journal's paid site (they were an early adopter to paid subscriptions) free theorizing that free meant more eyeballs for advertisers.

Advertising isn't going away.

But the totally free Internet is.


This blog for example will likely be $99 a year before the end of the year. But you can subscribe by the month. It's true that when "free" ends, many, many customers will not or cannot pay for the content but the ones who will are the ones the content will be customized for going forward.

Imagine the music and entertainment streams that can be accessed by people willing to pay a reasonable micropayment for them. The free Internet will always be available -- don't get me wrong. But those who embrace free as a business model must compete in a world of seemingly infinite competitors all looking to sell cheap ads for revenue.

THE IMPLICATION here is that the "good stuff" will be behind "paywalls," and digital rabble will be fighting over the "free Internet" crumbs.

That well could be; it already is happening. More and more, if there's something good on TV, you have to pay for cable to see it. And sometimes, you have to pay extra to see it on "pay channels" like HBO.

While it's true there's exponentially more content out there now than there was 50 years ago, pre-cable -- and also true that the "golden age" of TV featured its share of brass-plated crap -- you have to admit that it was a much more egalitarian landscape. For the price of a TV set (or of a couple of beers at
Studs' Place), Ralph Kramden had the same unlimited passport to the best of American culture as did Alan Brady . . . as well as one to the worst.

Another thing is that, years ago, while there may have been less total media content -- both free and paid -- there was an amazing breadth to "free" media. You kind of had to work at it not to be exposed to wide swaths of what our culture had to offer. Even "Top-40" radio was just that -- the most popular music, whether it be from Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Tammy Wynette.

TODAY, I worry about how a "paid Internet" could lead to even less democratization of information than existed before there even was an Internet.

And I think this becomes even more of an issue during an era of flat or negative economic growth and high unemployment. What if, during the Great Depression, commercial radio offered as scanty a product in terms of both quality and cultural breadth as it does now?

And what if one couldn't even rely on finding discarded newspapers on a park bench? Or in the local diner?

And what if public libraries had extremely scanty offerings of current newspapers and periodicals because of the massive cumulative expense of being "nickeled and dimed" via "micropayments"? How about the sheer unwieldiness of managing hundreds of passwords and accounts across many thousands of patron requests?

Impossible in the 1930s, and probably an IT and staffing nightmare today for strapped public and private institutions.

Ironically, technology in the coming "brave new world" -- contra popular opinion -- may well be a regressive force. And content originators not giving away their intellectual property will have far more ramifications (and present far more complications) for the less well-off than in the pre-digital past.

IF EGALITARIANISM catches a break, plans like The New York Times' for a "metered" website will give way to more creative models for making a buck. What doesn't bode well for such schemes is the distinct possibility of not being to charge a greatly smaller "paid audience" enough to make up for lost Internet ad revenue (due to fewer "views"). Well, that and the ability of just a few similar free sites of equal quality to blow up the entire business model.

The Times and Rupert Murdoch may charge, but someone won't. If I were them, the letters "N," "P" and "R" would strike fear in my heart.

I tend to think the genie is out of the bottle now, and the only thing more complicated than leaving it out is trying to stuff the sucker back in. The unintended consequences have been a bitch one way, and they could be an even bigger one the other.

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