About That Free Content

I’m thinking a lot these days about how to generate revenue for content. Even non-profits have to do that in this climate. Our organization creates content and gives it away free because we are supported by the generosity of people in the pew. Others take that content, re-package it and sell it. The gratis model of content is under stress because costs continue to increase as income stabilizes. The non-profit economic models from the past aren’t working any better than the model for commercial journalism.

Moreover, the charitable giving model of non-profit support is changing. Younger people give differently than their elders. For example, compare the One Campaign to One Great Hour of Sharing. One is a campaign model in contrast to the institutional model of One Great Hour of Sharing. Very different. Young people give to campaigns but not to institutions. That’s part of the background.

Another part is the way content is being created today. Anyone who wants to jump in, or happens to be in the right place at the right time can participate and publish. Citizens with cell phones are documenting airplanes landing in the Hudson or crashing into each other over the river. Spot news coverage is changing.

Individuals are publishing blogs, open source communities are creating content and anyone who wants can upload video to YouTube. The list goes on and you know it as well as I.

Changing media use is yet another reality. Media on screens, on demand and personalized to individual interests is also creating great change.

So, that’s the background I had in mind when I read that the photo cooperative Gamma has filed for bankruptcy. This underscored the changes once again. Gamma, as other photo coops, serves the mainstream media. It represents top tier photographers. According to the NY Times, the contraction in mainstream media is affecting photographers just as it affects writers. Fewer assignments coupled with the use of images provided by citizens with cellphones are making it hard for photographers to survive.

If the trend continues it presents a basic question: how writers, photographers and other content creators make a living and continue to practice their trade. The expectation that the Internet is a free repository of the world’s content makes the issue even more complicated. A recent report on the movement away from print textbooks to digital carried a striking statement. One interviewee asked why anyone would pay $100 a pop for a textbook when they could get the content in digital form for free? Why indeed?

The Internet has created an expectation, perhaps even a sense of entitlement, that content should be free. It’s a great idea. I support it. But, at what point does the free part of that question result in the end of the content being refreshed, renewed, or even written because those who create it can’t make a living? And if the charitable model doesn’t work anymore, or if it works but not adequately enough to underwrite ongoing services, where do the service providers turn for additional income?

As I said, I’m doing a lot of thinking about revenue generation these days.

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