All kinds of people are arguing about free stuff at the moment

There was a recent debate in these very pages about whether free media are seen as a lesser communication tool by media planners.  Surely those days are long gone. (If indeed that point of view was ever more than a negotiation tactic).  No-one has ever suggested that ads on ITV or Channel 4 are less persuasive than ads on paid for satellite channels.  The quality of some free newspapers and magazines is unarguable – titles like Metro and Shortlist have devoted fans.

Meanwhile the modern behemoths of marketing theory are fighting about Free too.  In a review in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell disagreed with Chris Anderson’s views in his new book “Free” that all content would be free in future.  Gladwell counters by saying that there are plenty of convincing models where people pay for great content.  Seth Godin then headed up a blog with the words “Malcolm is wrong”  stating that magazines and newspapers are “dying businesses”.  What all three actually agree on is twofold : 1) Everything is changing and 2) No-one actually knows exactly what will happen or how things will pan out.  I think we are all agreed there then.

The nature of our industry is to favour Darwinism in the long run.  The strong survive.  The weak go to the wall and it is the organisations that can be most flexible and experimental who win in the long run.

When Arianna Huffington recently talked about the Huffington Post she boasted that the costs of set up were so low that it was almost like launching a hobby.  When questioned on monetising her hobby however she mentioned voluntary donations – a business model that seems unlikely.

Another editor has raised the idea of collective ownership of newspapers by their readers.  The readers might own shares in the paper, help to set editorial and commercial policy and expect a return on that investment.  A co-operative newspaper might seem unlikely, but so is a co-operative football team yet FC Barcelona is one of the richest and most successful teams in Europe and is owned by over 150,000 socios (or members).  This untypical structure seems not to have affected the team’s ability to compete in either financially or in sport.

William Lewis – editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, says that he runs a “multi-media business not just a newspaper”.  He doesn’t see online advertising in its current form as an answer but expects increasing revenues from a number of sources for instance fantasy football competition subscriptions.

With the Digital Britain report talking more about “pipes” than content and therefore not mentioning much for online newspapers it remains to be seen how funding content will evolve, but now is the time to be experimental.  Here’s a thought – what about turning the licence fee over to a council of elders to decide what quality content should get funded by the state?

As seen at Mediaweek.co.uk

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