Closing the Barn Door on Free Content (after the cattle have escaped)

June 26th, 2009

I’m encountering an increasing volume of commentary on blogs and in news analysis that newspaper and other periodical publishers are now searching for a workable method to start charging for all the content they’ve been giving away for the past decade+. Content may wish to be free, but publishers are determinedly searching for handcuffs or perhaps an electronic ankle bracelet to get the content back into the stables (small side note…I searched Google for the correct term for electronic ankle bracelet. It brought up one ad: “Stylish Electronic Ankle Bracelet. Accessorize With Lovely Jewelry.” I guess if law enforcement is keeping track of you there’s no excuse to lose your sense of fashion).

Today I watched an interesting video on the Wall Street Journal site featuring an interview with Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, who with partners Steve Brill and Leo Hindery is launching a startup in September called Journalism Online. A report in the Guardian indicates that the three believe they can get “10% of web readers to pay for news online.” You can read much more media coverage of the venture on its beta web site.

The same Guardian article mentions a competing effort called ViewPass, described in more detail on editorsweblog. Both startups are intended as syndicates that would act as single point of access and payment to readers, as this is clearly far more practical than every publication creating a separate payment system.

Meanwhile on June 23rd in a keynote speech at the annual PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment and Media Outlook conference, Dow Jones CEO (and current publisher of The Wall Street Journal) Les Hinton called Google a vampire that was sucking the blood out of the newspaper business.

According to a report in Crain’s New York Business, Hinton said that “There is a charitable view of the history of Google. [It] didn’t actually begin life in a cave as a digital vampire per se. The charitable view of Google is that the news business itself fed Google’s taste for this kind of blood.”

By offering its content free on the Web, the newspaper industry “gave Google’s fangs a great place to bite. We will never know what might have happened had newspapers taken a different approach.”

We’ll all be keeping an eye on the efforts to re-attach cash to content, wondering whether it truly can be harnessed and put back in the barn, while perhaps driving a stake through Google’s heart.