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The whole question of subscription fees for online newspapers is a useful area of enquiry. The analogy with e-learning is significant, and many of the lessons providers of online learning content are about to learn have already been learned in the online media community.
That said: there are many ways we could approach this whole question, but I will take the simplest and most direct. Why are you paying $18 per month for something online when you could get it mostly for free? Because there are so many news sources out there, most of what is in your newspaper is freely available. Vin Crosbie has observed on numerous occasions, and I agree, that local content is the only real value a local newspaper has to offer online.
It would make sense to pay a subscription fee only if you could not obtain your local news online. With three city newspapers, you have plenty of choice. But perhaps one day all three will start charging subscriptions. You now face what I sometimes call an artificial scarcity: there is no shortage of supply, however, withholding (often via a cartel, an approach Steve Outing frequently recommends), creates one.
That all aside, is $18 a fair price for what you are receiving? First, let's not forget that you have had to purchase the reading device (your computer) and access to the distribution system. $18 a month is comparable to the cost of receiving each issue on your front doorstep. And yet the newspaper is able to deliver this item to you without paying for the newsprint and delivery costs. You should ask why it costs the same for you to purchase a product that costs the newspaper a lot less to produce. Particularly when only a small percentage of the content is useful to you.
This same issue arises in other domains. The RIAA is asking for a rate of a dollar a song for web music downloads, which amounts to about $12 a CD, which that same organization reports is the average price of a CD in the United States. Why should you pay the same price when the producer does not incur the cost of manufacturing the CD and case? By and large, consumers have rejected the proposed pricing with respect to music, and if the evidence that parades through the sources above (Steve Outing's ministrations notwithstanding) is any indication, consumers have essentially rejected that pricing model for online media.
Juliette Adams, in a recent article, articulated the issue nicely. She wrote, "The American market has spoken: an article is worth $1-5, a 10 hour-course $50-100, a full-length course $500-2000. These prices have been set by the aforementioned publishers, journals and academic institutions, my favorite clients withstanding. But if these prices are 'right', then why arenÂ’t there more 'eLearners'?"
In fact, you do not have to pay your local newspaper in order to access local news. Leaving aside the Google news search - for my area, New Brunswick - there is a wealth of alternative sources available online. For people living in larger cities, especially, the gamuit of press releases, announcements, web logs, activist pages, and similar sources gives you as detailed a picture as any newspaper. What you are missing, true, is someone to filter all this information and present it to you in a nice format. But the more people are looking at these alternative sources the less people are satisfied with the filtering and writing offered by professional journalists.
A discussion that has of late occupied a lot of ink on the Online News discussion list is the whole area of alternative news sources. Eric Meyer chimes in regularly with the assertion that they are parasites. But there has been a fair number of words devoted to the idea that web logs (blogs) are not only link lists but actually first hand accounts of news events, and therefore, in an important sense, more authentic. Paul Andrews documents this at length. "Aided by the Internet and personal-computer software, online communities with their own publishing tools and networks are redefining news in the 21st Century."
Educators play the same sort of role in society as journalists. They are aggregators, assimilators, analysts and advisors. They are middle links in an ecosystem, or as John Hiler puts it, parasites on information produced by others. And they are being impacted by alternative formas of learning in much the same way, for much the same reasons. "By adding to the diversity of original content, weblogs have added a whole new layer to the Media Food chain. That puts weblogs at the base of the food chain, generating the sort of grassroots journalism that the new Media Ecosystem has grown increasingly dependent upon. Because bloggers are closer to a story, they'll often pick up the sort of things that traditional Journalists miss."
One of the things that attracts people to weblogs is the diversity of their content. Everybody knows what to expect from traditional journalists. There's a fairly predictable story style, a fairly predictable political tone, a fairly predictable range of coverage. Weblogs draw from a much wider range of content, style and opinion. Loyalty is bought by bringing a point of view, a perspective, to the aggregation. By not merely listing news articles but describing how they fit into an overall pattern, by expressing an opinion based on a certain set of assumptions. This is not cheap and easy; it requires expertise and commitment.
It's one thing to talk about our being used to paying for printed newspapers, and to talk about it only being fair to compensate editors and writers for plying their craft, but in fact with virtually free global syndication, the substantially reduced cost of publication, and an increasing capacity on the part of the public to speak for itself, such productions and such professionals are not needed in nearly the quantity they were formerly. When we look at what is possible with new media and internet technology, it makes less and less sense to be paying print era prices for online reproductions of industrial age products.
Indeed, not only are their new modes of news production and distribution, it is arguable that in such a new environment traditional barriers like subscription fees do not create wealth, they hinder it. Most alternative sources of news are free, despite the fact that they represent hours of time and effort on the part of their authors. My own work is a case in point. Would there be a net gain in wealth were I to charge subscriptions for this material or even to run advertising in this material?
My answer to this is no: subscription fees would mean that many thousands of people who could benefit from the material on this site would not benefit. Even the use of advertising makes the distribution of the site in many contexts (such as schools and religious institutions) problematic (assuming the advertisers are willing to support material that undercuts their methodology). Could I make a little money? Yes, maybe even a lot of money. But only at the cost of removing a valuable resource from society. And only, moreover, at the cost of cutting off my own access to similar resources.
What goes around, they say, comes around. I have in turn made use of the extensive body of free information available on the world wide web. By making use of this information, and by sharing freely on my website, I have been able to gain expertise in some fields (one of which, I like to think, includes online publishing). This expertise has helped me to obtain a progression of positions in the online learning and online resource sector. It is true, I do not actually get paid for any of my online work. And true, I must provide actual services in order to earn my salary. But the salary I earn, the positions I hold, would not have been possible to attain without the free sharing of information, both on my part as a gift to others, and by others as a gift to me.
It is astonishing to me that there are some writers, indeed, some entire communities of individuals, who are unable to imagine any form of compensation other than direct payment for services rendered, and who are indeed not even to imagine the possibility that one may gain more from freely sharing information than by hoarding it for oneself. But this is my experience and the experience of not a few, but hundreds, even thousands, of individuals living and working on the web and in related industries. Look around and find any 'guru' or 'expert' or even 'consultant' in any field and you will find a wealth of information distributed for free. These people are by and large earning more money than writers, based largely on their writing, and yet are not paid as writers.
In the old economy, scarcity was wealth. But we do not live in the old economy any more.
Indeed, the very idea of placing a newspaper on the web presupposes access to a wide range of free services. Imagine what it would be like in a subscription-happy world were newspapers to pay the full cost of putting out a web edition. They would have to pay Tim Berners-Lee a whack of money for spending 8+ years of his like providing a free system (HTTP+HTML), pay the U.S. military and dozens of nameless programmers who developed the underlying TCP/IP code, pay large royalties to people (like me, say) who through trial and error demonstrated the feasibility of using the web as a publishing medium at all, pay royalties for each email (POP+SMTP) they send, and more.
While people talk about paying fair compensation for value received, perhaps we ought to examine the conduct of newspapers themselves. Imagine what the news would be like if you had to pay royalties to every accident victim you covered for the use of name, story and photos, pay and obtain permission from politicians and other flacks who issue press releases, pay and obtain permission to run stories about strikes, lockouts, and other labour conflicts, and so on. Newspapers depend on an environment of free information. Indeed, their essential function is to pick up information that other people have produced, sometimes at great cost to themselves, repackage it, and distribute it in a bundle along with some advertising. "Crash kills 5. Eat at McDonalds."
This is why it is dangerous for newspapers to take the subscription route. The companies most likely to be damaged by putting restrictions on the free flow of information are those companies that earn their livings from the free flow of information. If information becomes a commodity, as some of you are suggesting, then why should I, as a newsworthy (and humble) person, allow you free access to any of it?
The significant issue here, one that is obscured by the day-to-day question of whether we should pay subscription fees for newspapers, music or online learning, is the manner in which the online content industry is being warped in order to protect these industrial mode forms of commerce. The most frequently voice argument you hear, no matter what the domain, is that the author|musician|artist should be fairly compensated for their work, and that this new mode of commerce - whether it be file swapping, online used book sales, or free online academic journals - is endangering that revenue.
But uppose you were prohibited from selling your vehicle as a used car because your sale would cut into the earnings of those who build new cars. That argument seems pretty ridiculous, but it is essentially the same one being advanced by authors opposed to Amazon selling used books. "Amazon's practice does damage to the publishing industry, decreasing royalty payments to authors and profits to publishers," the guild wrote in its message. "There's no good reason for authors to be complicit in undermining their own sales."
I think that a lot of such lobbying is being done by people who have no idea how commerce works. Take me, for example. I pick up a book by John Brunner for a quarter in a used book shop (the real investment, of course, is the time it will take to read the book). I read it, I like it, I pick up a few more used Brunner books, then I start scouring Chapter's for his latest release. That's how it works. Cut off used book sales and it's like you've cut off the oxygen. The same logic applies to most content, online or offline. The software I buy is the software I've been using for free for a while. The NY Times when I'm south of the border I buy because I've become used to reading it for free online. The text I recommend for my class is the one a colleague loaned me over the summer. I don't know what authors and publishers think will replace the churn of ideas that constitutes a free information exchange, but I can tell you this: if you kill off that churn, you kill off the fuel that drives the information economy.
I should refer you to some of the more useful resources. The Online News [ON] mailing list is probably the best source for discussion and insight. The quality voices on this list are JD Lasica, Vin Crosbie, and Eric Meyer (though we disagree a lot).
Another good resource is Poynter's e-Media Tidbits, a daily group weblog covering isses and events in online news. From the writer's point of view, Inscriptions, a weekly e-zine, is a good read, though it can be wordy. The Online Journalism Review (OJR) is the voice of record for many in this community and provides numerous in depth looks at the issues. Declan McCullough's PoliTechBot looks more at politics, but often has good insights. Steve Outing is also a major voice and runs regular columns. He writes for Editor & Publisher, which runs mostly industry news bits.
I think you have hit the point with your discussion of an annuity. People don't want to be able to simply earn a living from what they create; they want to retire. Everyone clings to the idea that the next thing they create will be that million dollar best seller. It is this dream (and not real on the ground economics) that elicits their defense of proprietary information. [Comment] [Permalink]
I received the following by email from Tom Abeles. Posted with permission. - Stephen.
My server was down so I decided to respond to this article off line. You may past it into your web site if you think it would be of value. I didn't keep a copy of the daily bulletin where you posted your hotlink. but I tried several routes to the site and found all entrances lead to the same rejection *grin*
Your argument is interesting. It is very similar to the discussion between the engineer and the "sales engineer" who sells equipment to contractors. Often the sales engineer will do a set of design drawings and give them to the contractor so that the contractor can bid a project or save the cost of engineering and the traditional engineer who sells engineering skills looses a commission to do some design work.
In your case, you give away information in your newsletter because it leads to other compensating factors such as an enhanced reputation leading to good job reviews and invitations to conferences as a learning/teaching guru, noted for his wisdom, essentially gleaned from continuously feeding on information whether purchased or free.
Eduventures, for a long time gave away a lot of free information on the education market place until they achieved a reputation in the finance arena and conference area and had paying clients. Now they just give away a "taste" or their reports to select parties in order to entice folks to their other services. Free information is really adformation and the hard core information costs clients a bundle
Right now the academic community, particularly in the biosciences has a running war with the publishers on the high cost of the journals wherein they publish or perish. The publishers are making a mint. Where else would a publisher get camera ready copy for a quarterly journal which is no larger for four issues than a single book, and be able to charge in the 100's of dollars a volume to sell the material back to the academics? this is material, by the way that has low information density and a very low readership since the value is in the published article, regardless of its intellectual half life.
I don't know what drives Stephen Downes. But as an aggregator, a respected filter of the detritus of the web (the cost per bit may be free, but the cost per useful bit is very dear), Stephen reduces that cost based on how valuable he is to me as a media filter. If enough believe in Stephen, he gets his reward. the same for George Lorenzo. His value as a filter is what people are buying, the selective choice of what he finds and chooses to report or to analyze. Thus, both Stephen and George are filters and interpreters of what is out "there". Just the choice is an act of creative synthesis and any interpretations adds to the value. In George's case, as the "engineer", he wants to get paid for this effort. In Stephen's case as the "sales engineer" he gives away what George sells in order to get other rewards, some in food/clothes and shelter and others in ego.
IN many ways the relationship is parasitic for both the aggregators and the creators. the sales engineer and the aggregators already know how they will make money. The creators are having a greater problem. to that extent, Stephen is right. Music is an example. Give away the recordings in order to make money in live performances- recordings are marketing. The problem, of course, is that everyone wants an annuity. If the records are the annuity then the band can stop touring and live off the royalties. What is the half-life of an entertainer (singer, band, baseball player, movie star...) what happens when they are past their performance prime and all they have is the past to sell and that gets no return because its "free", except that aggregators get the fees for continuing to selectively filter the tunes. What happens when the aggregator wants to retire? different scenarios. Make hay today because tomorrow its not worth anything? its free?
I don't like being referred to as a "parasite," and I think that metaphor is way off the mark. As an educator, I am much more than a middleman for information producers - I am an integral part of the data stream (or collective consciousness, if you prefer). Just as all information producers do, I review and synthesize existing data. I share this data either formally or informally, and I frequently use this data as a base from which to produce my own information. I continously distinguish myself from the data stream and simultaneously fold myself into it. The degree to which I impact the data stream is irrelevant; I contribute to it simply by being a part of it, not a parasite of it. [Comment] [Permalink]
Hiya George, Thank you for your comments and for your restraint in responding to an article you stromgly opposed. Please allow me to respond.
You described the work that you do, saying "I work very hard and try to provide information that noone else seems to be able to dig up. It's a long and tedious process, indeed, that keeps me up late at night every day of the week. And yes, I charge a subscription price to my monthly newsletter. People who find this information I provide helpful and informative, and like the fact that they can receive it via e-mail, as well as a printed version in their mail box each month, will pay the annual subscription price."
I recognize and respect the work that you do. That said, as I am sure you would agree, the measure is not of how hard you work or of how long it takes you but in the value you produce. You recognize this when you point out that people value the work that you do. It is this value that enables you to charge a subscription fee.
From my perspective, it does not matter one way or another if this is how you choose to earn your living. But I do have two points to make.
- Part of what I was trying to say in my article is that I do not think this is the best route you could take. As information is becoming increasingly easier to find, you are no doubt finding it increasingly difficult to produce a unique product. I expect this trend to continue. You may not like this analogy, but it a bit as though you were a blacksmith in the late 1800s. You work hard, you produce quality work, but you are finding it increasingly difficult to compete against modern industries. It is your right to continue with your chosen trade, but I do not think yours is the path to long term income security.
- Indeed, we have no issue whatsoever, and I no reason to comment on what you do, until your efforts to defend your income begin to impinge on my freedom to earn mine. I won't say that you do this, but people involved in the content production industry have been working hard to block the free exchange of information that is the basis for the new economy, the economy in which I live and work. There are numerous points of attack, and I won't enumerate them all here. But what the attacks have in common is this: assuming equal quality, a paid service, such as yours, cannot compete with a free service like mine. So people who offer paid services attempt in various ways to stifle the free services. It is at this point that you and I find ourselves at the opposite sides of a dispute.
I would like first to point out that this simply isn't true. I have a large library of boks. I read three newspapers a day. I am a regular purchaser of magazines. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Heller Report, and numerous publications related to the field sit on my magazine rack. As I stated above, I have no opposition to your chosen vocation, and I have no opposition to the charging of fees per se.
What is important to take note, however, is that my paid subscriptions and purchases represent only a small percentage of the material I read every day (less than five percent). Moreover, these purchased publications would be of value to me unless they were supported by the free content I also read. Some of them would not be on my shelf at all unless I were able to read much of their content for free. My time and my resources are scarce and valuable (at least to me) and so I no longer purchase content without having a very good understanding of what that content is.
Mostly, what I pay for when I purchase content is the convenience of format. Magazines and books are excellent portable random access data storage devices. Though more expensive than the equivalent in a hard drive or CD-ROM, they are easier to use.
This is so important and yet the vast majority of content producers and publishers do not get it: when you sell me a book, newspaper or magazine, you are selling me the paper. The content is just an inducement to get me to purchase your primary product. Conversely, if you take away the paper, you have taken away my primary motivation for purchasing the product. And so I think you are fooling yourself if you think you can continue to charge the same fee for it.
You continue, "Nonetheless I do provide a lot of information for free as well. I'm not trying to kill the churn. For instance I have a compendium of website links that I built that took a great deal of my time to produce, available on my website. (By the way, as you know, it costs money to run a web site and a business in general.) There are also other articles, etc. that I have written that are available for free. I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that I get this sense from your writing that you think paying for information is a great big no-no."
To restate my point: I am not in principle opposed to paying for information, but I resist the trends that are attempting to increase the sales of information at the expense of the availability of free information.
To conclude your first point, you observe, "Obviously you have a right to that opinion but it doesn't seem right to me for you to insinuate that those who charge subscription rates are like parasites --I think it is quite unfair to say that."
The word 'parasite' obviously has a certain connotation, but I would like you to ignore the connotation and think of the word 'parasite' as referring to a functional role in an ecosystem. The role of most journalists, writers, and teachers, is as John Locke would say, to take something out of the common, to add value to it through your labour, thereby making it yours. In the wider ecosystem, this is what parasites do: they extract from nature (usually some living creature) something of value and make it their own.
The word 'parasite' has bad connotations because many parasites carry disease and injure their host. Some continue to extract nourishment until the host is dead. Some parasites vigorously defend their position, blocking access to less harmful parasites.
Certainly some content producers are parasites in just that sense. When a top broadcasting executive states that skipping television commercials is a form of theft, he is acting as a parasite in the nasty sense. Then the CEO of Disney lobbies for legislation that require that all computers contain digital rights management restrictions, he is acting like a parasite in the nasty sense. When the authors of the DMCA make it a crime to be in possession of software that could be used to violate copyright, they are acting as parasites in the nasty sense. When proponents of private education lobby for decreased funding for public schools because they cannot compete, they are acting as parasites in the nasty sense. When critics lobby against government funded television and radio, citing unfair competition, they are acting as parasites in the nasty sense. In all cases they are trying to establish a marketplace in which only fee-for-content services exist. This would effectively kill the commons. It would effectively kill the host.
I do not know you well enough to know whether your actions make you a nasty sort of parasite or a good parasite (and there are good parasites - think of hummingbirds or bees). But if your defense of your livlihood is such that you would like to push non-commercial services out of existence, then we have a serious dispute.
You finally conclude, "I don't promote myself as a consultant, guru or expert, although I do give out a lot of free advice based on all the knowledge I have gained from talking with people in the industry I work in, which is online teaching and learning. I earn a living (albeit a small one at that) by my research and writing and then by putting all the information I gather into a graphically pleasing and hopefully helpful-to-my- audience form. I happen to be a self-employed, free-lance writer -- there are many of us out there -- please don't knock us down for trying to earn a living in a captialistic society."
To restate my main points slightly differently:
- You might want to consider earning a living as a consultant or a speaker. The pay is a lot better, you still get to keep your freedom, and because you perform a valuable service you are likely to be continuously employed into the future.
- And it is fine with me if you chose to live your life as a capitalist. Where we run into problems is when you try to force me to live as a capitalist. My right and my desire for products and services that promote a social good over and above a merely economic good is as strong and legitimate as yours. You do not get to win by default simply by identifying yourslef as 'capitalist'. I have the right, and according to my own ethics, the duty to promote the public good. This surely has as much standing as any ethic you would like to propose.
Stephen: my comments after yours:
You: By making use of this information, and by sharing freely on my website, I have been able to gain expertise in some fields (one of which, I like to think, includes online publishing). This expertise has helped me to obtain a progression of positions in the online learning and online resource sector. It is true, I do not actually get paid for any of my online work. And true, I must provide actual services in order to earn my salary. But the salary I earn, the positions I hold, would not have been possible to attain without the free sharing of information, both on my part as a gift to others, and by others as a gift to me."
Me: Some people, such as myself, do not collect salaries and do not hold positions that help to pay our health insurance and so forth; nor do we want to have a salary and a position. I am self-employed, invest my time, hard-earned expertise and own money in order to hopefully earn a decent living to support a family. I'm not looking to make a million dollars. I work very hard and try to provide information that noone else seems to be able to dig up. It's a long and tedious process, indeed, that keeps me up late at night every day of the week. And yes, I charge a subscription price to my monthly newsletter. People who find this information I provide helpful and informative, and like the fact that they can receive it via e-mail, as well as a printed version in their mail box each month, will pay the annual subscription price. Those such as yourself, who seem to think all information should be free for the good of society, will obviously not subscribe to my newsletter. Nonetheless I do provide a lot of information for free as well. I'm not trying to kill the churn. For instance I have a compendium of website links that I built that took a great deal of my time to produce, available on my website. (By the way, as you know, it costs money to run a web site and a business in general.) There are also other articles, etc. that I have written that are available for free. I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that I get this sense from your writing that you think paying for information is a great big no-no. Obviously you have a right to that opinion but it doesn't seem right to me for you to insinuate that those who charge subscription rates are like parasites --I think it is quite unfair to say that.
You: "It is astonishing to me that there are some writers, indeed, some entire communities of individuals, who are unable to imagine any form of compensation other than direct payment for services rendered, and who are indeed not even to imagine the possibility that one may gain more from freely sharing information than by hoarding it for oneself. But this is my experience and the experience of not a few, but hundreds, even thousands, of individuals living and working on the web and in related industries. Look around and find any 'guru' or 'expert' or even 'consultant' in any field and you will find a wealth of information distributed for free. These people are by and large earning more money than writers, based largely on their writing, and yet are not paid as writers."
Me: I don't promote myself as a consultant, guru or expert, although I do give out a lot of free advice based on all the knowledge I have gained from talking with people in the industry I work in, which is online teaching and learning. I earn a living (albeit a small one at that) by my research and writing and then by putting all the information I gather into a graphically pleasing and hopefully helpful-to-my- audience form. I happen to be a self-employed, free-lance writer -- there are many of us out there -- please don't knock us down for trying to earn a living in a captialistic society.
Editor and Publisher