The Wall Street Journal’s Lord Master Rupert Murdoch has decided to drop the pay wall on WSJ.com content, just a few weeks after the New York Times decided to let all its content online be free. Both newspapers are betting on the fact that increased online ad revenue will balance out the reduced subscription revenue.
MediaShift has a good blog post summarizing the arguments in favour and against dropping the pay wall, including its effects on paper subscriptions and volatility of the online advertising market.
One of the blog posts it links to says in one sentence my chief concern about all this: “Are we seeing the death of the paid content model?”
I like free content. I like not having to pay to download stuff on my computer. I like being able to read articles from all sorts of newspapers. I like blogs and YouTube and Flickr.
But I’m also one of many people who is trying to make a living off of this “content” thing, and along with all this free content is a race to the bottom, with content providers seeking cheaper and cheaper content. Many now seriously expect people to work for them for free, hoping that not even five minutes of maybe-fame will be enough to cloud their judgment and cause them to ignore the fact that they have to put food on their table.
The bigger problem is that as content gets cheaper and cheaper, so does the work being produced for those low salaries. Investigative journalism disappears completely, journalists get lazy and become stenographers, columnists write uninteresting fluff about their daily lives, and the wall between editorial and advertising starts getting blurry.
We seem to accept being charged for content only when it exists on a physical medium, like books, DVDs and newspapers. Is there any purely digital content that people will keep paying for in the future, or is advertising expected to cover everything? (And with all the increasing content on the Internet, can we possibly have enough advertising interest to bankroll it all?)
We’ll see. By my count only two major Canadian dailies still have pay walls on their websites: The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir. Are they coming next, or will they buck the trend?