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.