The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell on "Free" Media

Categories: News, News

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Malcolm Gladwell at a lecture in Chicago.

If you have a major problem with free media, please send cash or check before reading the rest of this post.

In the beginning of Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the current New Yorker, he sounds as if he might be mocking Jim Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News (where I used to work). Gladwell, author of Tipping Point and Blink, writes about Moroney's telling Congress that Amazon is essentially trying to lowball newspapers on licensing fees. It's part of a

review of a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson.

Anderson, editor of Wired, basically claims that the days of newspapers paying people to write are soon over: "Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer." He has argued that newspapers need to find "a pet for their penguin," meaning something to charge readers for after luring them with free content.

Gladwell points out a problem with this theory: "It is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between 'paying people to get other people to write' and paying people to write. If you can afford to pay someone to get other people to write, why can't you pay people to write?"

To advance the story (because that's what we do here at the Juice --  we advance stories like you only dreamed of), I went to an expert, our publisher, who, as luck would have it, just so happens to pay people to write for the free blog you're reading right now.

In response, our expert, probably wisely, decided not to participate in the editorial process. Since I try hard not to get in the habit of biting hands that feed me, I didn't push the issue.

Still, Gladwell repeatedly questions what has, until now, been generally accepted logic in the publishing world:

"Information wants to be free," Anderson tells us, "in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill." But information can't actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?

He brings up YouTube, one of Anderson's primary case studies, which will host an estimated 75 billion videos this year, at a cost "close enough to free to round down." Gladwell points out that "'close enough to free' multiplied by 75 billion is still a very large number" and that YouTube's bandwidth costs in 2009 will be $360 million, making the Google-owned site far from profitable.

With simple poetry, Gladwell closes with this:

"The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws." 

In the video below, Chris Anderson explains his theory on a digital economy that he says will, one day, be based on the concept of Free.

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