Free Content = Unpaid Providers

April 12, 2011

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com.

It’s been called journalism’s original sin of the Internet age: media companies giving away their content for free. Focused on their lucrative print and broadcast properties, they viewed the Internet as an afterthought and offered uninspiring websites as throw-ins for customers who wanted them.

Having trained their customers to expect free Web content, traditional media companies began hemorrhaging money in the mid-2000s as the Internet became consumers’ preferred medium. With their traditional products shrinking, mainstream media suddenly were in competition with an endless array of digital ventures that had grown up on the Web and understood how to engage customers and make money online.

All this has been widely discussed by media analysts. What’s gotten less attention is how the growth of the Web has devalued writers, photographers and other content providers. The model that’s developing in today’s communications business mimics the distribution of wealth in America: a few rich people at the top and a big group struggling at the bottom.

The new Web media learned one lesson very quickly: It’s a lot easier to make money if you don’t pay for your content.

The poster child for this is the Huffington Post, which recently was sold to AOL in a deal that netted founder Arianna Huffington an eight-figure payday. The Huffington Post does employ a growing staff of writers and editors, but most of its traffic is generated by articles it “aggregates” from other sources and by an army of unpaid writers who hope the exposure on one of the Web’s most popular sites will help them land paying gigs elsewhere. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, recently attacked the Huffington Post in the New York Times Magazine.

Huffington “has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come,” Keller wrote.

In recent years, AOL had been investing in its own journalism operation. After acquiring the Huffington Post in February, however, AOL quickly axed several hundred people from its own existing news staff.

Getting into the spirit of things, AOL’s Moviefone unit fired a group of freelancers who had been contributing paid reviews to the site. But wait: In a memo from Moviefone’s top editor, the fired critics were invited to continue their contributions “as part of our non-paid blogger system.” After the memo leaked out, the top Moviefone editor was herself fired – not, I’d argue, for the substance of her memo, but for the embarrassment it caused AOL.

The old media are catching on. Last week, the Village Voice – whose parent company also owns City Pages – published a “comics issue.” Several stories focused on how tough it is to make a living these days as a cartoonist. No wonder – the Voice paid nothing for the cartoons it published in the special issue, having gotten cartoonists to contribute them free for the exposure. After an outcry, the Voice backtracked and paid the artists.

What does this mean for you as an information consumer? It means fewer professional journalists delving deeply into important topics – or even less important ones. It means you’ll rely more on information from unpaid sources like bloggers and consumer forums like Yelp!

It also means you’re likely to get more of your information from corporate sources, which are discovering that they can communicate directly with consumers without needing traditional media middlemen to tell their stories.

The Bible says that Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge. Traditional media had their own Garden of Eden – a paradise of no competition, 30 percent profit margins and well-paid journalists with health benefits and pensions.

And at this point, I think the media are about as likely to get their Garden of Eden back as Adam and Eve were.

(Editor’s note: John Reinan wrote this item free, for the exposure.)