Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Aggregators, Assimilators, Analysts and Advisors

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 14, 2002

In his newsletter today, Elliott Masie wrote, "I never balked at paying for a print newspaper, yet this was a bridge to cross before I could feel good about paying for an e-newspaper. Ironically, the paper tells me they have gotten way fewer subscribers than they thought! So, they are playing with their pricing and business models. I am intrigued about readers' thoughts about your own response to paying for e-content, whether it be a daily newspaper or knowledge flows." What follows is my response to him.

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.

The material from these sources relevant to e-learning is contained in my own knowledge base at A natural companion to this item is my article, School Blogs.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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