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The good doctor posted on whether media should be freely available on the internet or whether it should be paid for. The subject probably deserves far more thoght an analysis than just a couple of blog posts (via Jure Gostiša) but since this subject is close to the itch I still have to scratch regarding Slovenian media, I might as well chip in my two eurocents.


Implications of web media content being universaily charged exceed mere economic aspects of the issue. The social consequences of effectively limiting acces to content would be enormous. Information is namely much more than just a product one pays for because it has no end quantity. To put it blunty: once you eat a loaf of bread, it is gone. Once you read/hear/see a piece of information, it is still there for others to do the same.

At first sight the dilemma is simple. Someone (a journalist working for a media company) got hold of a piece of information, has edited it, put it into context and published it, thus making it relevant to his readers/listeners/viewers (“users”). And in case of a newspaper, you pay for that by buying a copy. But since no newspaper can survive just on income from sales of its editions, it features advertisments as well. So if you pay for that piece of information by buying paper (hardcopy) version, why should you get the e-version for free?

Things get a little more complicated in case of electronic media. Most of these around the world are free of charge and finance themselves mostly through advertising. No matter if you switch on CNN, Fox News or POP TV and Radio KAOS here in Slovenia (to pick four examples completely at random), you get them free of charge. Not entirely for free, of course, because you “pay” for viewing them by being bombaredd by tons and tons of advertising, but so it goes.

To add to the confusion, there are public media, which are financed by some ingenious solution to get a hold of taxpayer’s money. In case of Slovenia this means a compulsory payment of a fixed sum by every household which has an electric power suppy. Which means every household. Period.

And to muddle the picture completely, there is the so-called “citizen journalism” (bloggerati, twitterati and similar), which brings a whole new set of problems to an area which already suffers from a severe case of identity crisis.

But in all fairnes it seems that two questions are being mixed up in this debate. The actual question is whether access to infomation should be charged. But this question often gets confused with whether information as such should be free. However, the confusion is legitimate (at least to an extent) as answer to the latter question directly influences the answer to the former question.

Must information be free?

To put it bluntly: yes. Please keep in mind that in our case “information” either means the abstract concept of information or (in real life) media content for more or less general consumption. Information is the fourth production factor (in addition to work, land and capital – Marxism 101). Indeed (to quote what little I remember from reading Tehranian), if Karl Marx was alive today, he would have probably entitled his seminal work Die Information rather than Das Kapital. Contrary to the other three, information is not gone when “consumed”. It remains to be “consumed” by another user (listener/viewer/reader). Therefore, information theoretically does not have a finite quantity and is thus not infuenced by the usual supply/demand logic.

To translate this in real life: once media content is available, it will not diminish, wear, dilute or become more scarce in any way, shape or form, no matter how many people have accessed it. Furthermore, media perform (should perform) several social roles, profitability being only one of them. The other, equally important, is the role of protecting the public interest. Not public’s interest, but public interest. The latter can be defined as longterm interests of the society as a whole (citizens, instututions, various elites, the state, common values, etc…) To achieve that, information provided within media content must be as complete and as succint as possible. The third important role of the media is that of a social corrective. Those members of a society who have little or no access to the original three production factors (work, land, capital) can only compete with the rest of the society if they have unimpeded access to the forth factor, which (as we have seen) does not have a finite quantity. And in order to compete, access to information cannot be based on possession of work, land or capital. Therefore, information must be free.

However, does this mean that media content must be free as well? Not necesarily.

Someone has to pay

In addition to information it provides, media content does have an added value. Ideally, having been edited, stripped of nonsense and presented in an understandable manner (did you know that most of you follow media on the level of an intelligent twelve-year-old?), content delivered is very much different from the unabrigged, “raw” reality. Pengovsky usually says that media create reality rather than simply report it, but we’ll deal with that some other time. To put is simply, creating media content costs money.

Which is certainly not news (pun very much intended). We’ve been paying for newspapers since the dawn of time. Until twenty years ago, most countries in the world had their citizens pay a fee if they owned a TV (and in some cases a radio) receiver. Some still do. This was both a nice way to keep tabs on the citizens as well as a welcome source of income for maintaining the terrestrial transciever network. But the bottom line is that regardless of whether the newspaper, radio or television were state- or private-owned, they had to be paid for and – most importantly – people creating content had to be paid (for).

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Enter the internet as we know it today. Suprising as it may seem, the concept of media has changed extremely little. Despite occasional dabbling in media convergence, most media still do on-line what they do off-line. Newspapers deliver articles, TV stations deliver videos, radio station delier streams and podcasts. Most of them only publish online what they’ve already published off-line. And that was already paid for.

I’m not kidding. Tthe article you’ve read on your favourite newspaper’s website was already paid for either by subscriers or advertisers. Otherwise it would not exist. Media companies have developed a nasty habit of treating journalists simply as “cost of labour” and if the cost of labour is not covered by income generated, well so much worse for labour. There is so little web-only content generated by media that it’s hardly worth a pair of fetid dingo’s kindeys. From this point of view it becomes obvious that any further charges to access media content on-line are meant only to boost profits of a media company. That is, of course, an entirely legitimate goal if done on a individual basis. But as an argument to have all media charge access to their content, it is hardly persuasive.

Copyleft, copyright, copy/paste

Then there’s the whole web 2.0 shebang. At this time the internet is a vehicle for delivering media content functions along exactly the same lines as most other electronic (non-print) media. Media companies compete for reach and relevance and try to cover costs incured, by advertising. The fact that most of them apparenty don’t cover the costs of web-presence, tells us one of three things: 1) that they suck at marketing, 2) that their reach and cerdibility leave a lot to be desired or 3) that they have a problem understanding the web. Since 1 and 2 hardly seem viable options (they would have been swept off the market had that been the case), the only other option left is that they don’t get the web.

I don’t think a lot of people do mind you. And even those who do, are probably bluffing, so it’s really nothing to be ashamed of.

But the advent of blogging and “citizen journalism” caught media companies completely unprepared and consequently they are running scared shitless. All of a sudden anyone can post a story on anything and since tools of the trade are becoming increasingly more accessible, the end product of citizen journalism is becoming more and more professional-looking.

Or does it?

They say about blogging that never in the history of mankind have so many had so little to say to so few. Sure, there are stories on blogs. But – forgive me for saying so – 95% of those would have hardy make the cut even in the most sleazy and will-publish-anything media in Slovenia. Yes, you can break a story on a blog. Yes it can be used to publish stories that are in the public interest but don’t appear in established media for one reason or another. But blogging and citizen journalism cannot replace established media. Although there is much to be said about the frightfully-fast-declining quality of the established media, they still have both the infrastrutructure as well as the manpower, knowledge and even legal protection to follow a story. Sure, most of the media are not all that they could be, but give them half a chance and you’ll see what relentless media pressure can do.

On the other hand, what do bloggers do? They tweet, errr… microblog. And take pictures. And do Facebook. If a citizen journalist were to learn the trade for real, he/she would become “just” journalist, which is not simply a past-time activity, but a way of life. You may be disinclined to agree, but it is very much true. Just because you have a camera and a blog, you’re not yet a journalist. Just as not every asshole with a microphone does not automatically become a good journalists, but that’s another matter.

Back to the basics

The question therefore is not whether ot not access to media content should be charged for, but what kind of content do we get on the web. Fact of the matter is that most news content is delivered by the few global news agencies in business. Not BBC, CNN of any of the news companies which operate on te 24/7 news cycle, but rather by the old-school news agencies like Reuters, AP, DPA and AFP (to pick a couple examples at random). And most of those charge for access to their content. Just as Slovene Press Agency (STA) does. So if established media would start charging for their content, what’s to stop users to circumvent them entirely and go to press agencies directly? Especially if a lot of what we get is simply copy/pasted from news agencies as it is?

Content. Good, informative, engaging, provocative and relevant content. That’s what media once were all about and that’s what it should be about. Some are, most aren’t. That is also the only aspect in which citizen journalism can pose any sort of a threat to its full-blooded counterpart. If journalists and media owners hadn’t become complacent and self-sufficient, the debate would be purely academic. As it is, media owners want to re-package and re-sell content which was not made for the web originally and are wondering why the hell are they bleeding users on one end and money on the other. Typically, they’re only concerned with money, whereas users enter the equation only as a source of income and not as sentient beings who want value for money. Journalists, on the other hand, instinctively know that things are taking a turn for the worse, but since they get paid poorly and will be cut loose as soon as profits take a dip, many of them are beyond caring.

Media companies should start making content that is trully worthy of the web and takes fulll advantage of it. Then and only then will they be justified in charging for it. But I’m willing to bet that once they reach that stage, charging for content will not be necessary as advertising money will be thrown at them by a shovel-full.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

5 thoughts on “Please Enter Your Username And Password”

  1. It’s really nice to read a comprehensive description of the most important issues concerning media… I do have a thing or two to point out, but I mean it as a complement (and a compliment, too)…

    – on Karl Marx: I take it you consider him an important theoretician?
    – on Information: disregarding Marx, one could also claim that what media offer are not material goods but the good old intellectual services (information and the concrete offering of information), which is why the number of their users need not be definite.
    Just like in a language course. Now, in a language course at a private school you need a minimum of learners so that it makes fiscal sense to organize the course. Any additional learner will make you richer, but if riches weren’t your goal, you could take them on for free.
    It is only you definitely need the basic group and it shouldn’t dwindle.
    Some time ago, die Süddeutsche Zeitung let me know they had stopped issuing my most favourite magazine, because the money wasn’t there. In one of their articles they talked about the rising numbers of online readers, who get to read most articles for free, and the falling numbers of paper readers who finance the online business. I was actually devastated at that.

    – on paying online for good content: did that several times. I used to pilgrimage to Ljubljana Railway Station on Saturdays and get a Süddeutsche or a FAZ and enjoy the rest of the day. So when I buy one of their online articles nowadays, there are things I know for sure, in advance like: regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the article I have just bought, I am probably going to love the high level it retains, the linguistic experience and the many new ways of thinking I can learn from it if I want to. One thing I don’t expect is for the article to be like I want it to be (e.g. from my previous experience), to say what I want it to say or in a certain way. I want that article to exist and have been written regardless of my Reader’s Preferences. Now, if payable online articles were an important income source, wouldn’t the authors need to adapt to their customers, more and more? To catch the most general currents in thinking and feeling and give them back to the paying customers, thus confirming their Weltanschauung and making them happy, i.e. trigger-happy when holding their PC mouse and entering their Visa numbers?
    Do we want that?

    – on TV: As you can see from that I have a high regard for newspapers, but then, I don’t have a TV. TV’s a different case, as we know. If they make popular news and documentaries, the power of pictures as the most important part of their productions will probably help kill newspapers, no? Even more than the internet?

    – finally, on bloggers: yes, blogs do enrich our lives, we only need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. But they are only a welcome addition, not a replacement for professional journalism, I agree with you.

  2. Having read the post as well as alcessa’s comments, there are just two points I want to make :

    1) No matter what, it always comes down to the money. Once upon a long ago, it might have been (more) about getting a good and accurate story, but pretty soon stakeholders realised that the more readers you got, the more money you could make, which in turn affected the nature and accuracy of the news stories being published. Andif the stakeholders decide they can squeeze even more money out of the consumer by charging for content and get away with it, they’ll do so. The nature and accuracy of the stories will most likely be altered and perverted in order to accomodate the largest part of the audience. Indeed, that is NOT what anyone in their right mind would want.

    2) Blogging is an entire different beast altogether and except in some cases – like this one (also selected at random, of course ;)) – I do not consider blogs an informed source of news, simply because the blogosphere is too diverse in nature and doesn’t deal solely with providing general news stories on whatever level. While there certainly are such blogs – mostly maintained by journalists to begin with – most just deal with the life and times of private citizens who just want to make their presence known and share something, if not too much, about their private lives. Hardly a reliable news source, right? Those also may enrich our lives and provide solid information (the blog posts about real estate affairs in Slovenija on The Doctor’s blog come to mind), but as a whole they’re merely faits divers.

    Funny thing, but this post also takes me back to the whole upheaval about my core business, as today, music is also perceived as being free nowadays because it’s provided – illegally – online, regardless of how many hours were spent putting the songs together. Ads aren’t going to pay my wages, though…

  3. @Mr. P: Thanks for the two cents. I think your post was worth considerably more than that.

    This post has just appeared in my RSS ready, especially amusing in the light of James Murdoch’s attack on the free dissemination of news by the BBC.

    Seems to me there will be a long (and bloody) shakeout affecting “paid for” news. Some organisations will fail and subside, some will adapt and triumph. Who knows which? I certainly don’t, but I can’t see the “free” sources of news going any time soon.

  4. @alcessa:

    on Karl Marx: I take it you consider him an important theoretician?

    I do 🙂 His analysis of capitalism was impeccable. His proposed solutions, however, left a lot to be desired. Much like Janez Janša’s, actually 🙂

    -On language courses: That’s indeed very much like the off-line media. You need a basic group to pay the teacher and the infrastrucure needed. However, put the course online, and you can probably even have a group of one student.

    -On magazine: Like it or not, magazines (especially if they are supplements to newspapers) are primarily meant as a source of income. And yes, if money isn’t there, they’ll stop publishing it

    if payable online articles were an important income source, wouldn’t the authors need to adapt to their customers, more and more?

    Actually, that is already happening. It is called “tabloidisation” of newspapers. I submit to you that putting more original content on-line would actually put a stop to that because good content would be easier to reach no matter how small a target audience this content would have.

    On TV:
    their productions will probably help kill newspapers, no? Even more than the internet?

    No. If that were the case, it would already have happened. The glory days of TV are over, precisely because of the internet.

    On bloggers: Glad we agree 🙂

    @dr. Arf:
    And if the stakeholders decide they can squeeze even more money out of the consumer by charging for content and get away with it, they’ll do so.

    True, true… (opens a bottle of Bud)

    The nature and accuracy of the stories will most likely be altered and perverted in order to accomodate the largest part of the audience

    As I said to alcessa, that is already happening. But it’s been a slow process and went largely unnoticed by us, the users. Much like a frog in a pot of water that is being slowly heated up.

    On music: acutally, I was thinking about that as I was writing this. I couldn’t persuade you to do another guest post, could I? :mrgreen:

    An extremely good link, thank you very much. And I agree with you that it will be a bloody battle and that the result is far from conclusive. And yes, the net is such a vast place, that you’ll always find morons who will do things for free 🙂

  5. @P : If you twist my arm like that, I can’t just flat out refuse, now can I? 😛

    As for the fact that content and accuracy of stories is altered and perverted; I kinda managed to leave out an important bit in that sentence, which was ‘even more’. :mrgreen:

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