And there’s plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free. The Times gives away its content on its Web site. But the Wall Street Journal has found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television—the original practitioner of Free—is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine.
I haven’t read Chris Anderson’s book “Free”. But I’ve been reading enough to realize that Gladwell is missing the point in his review.
Broadcast television is hurting not because its free. It’s hurting because our tastes in television has fractured and fractured again along the Long Tail. When there were 4 channels, everyone watched them. When there are hundreds upon hundreds of channels, everyone goes to their own niche and less watch the original 4 channels.
Anderson has argued on his blog: information either wants to be free or it wants to be really expensive. I think that’s about right. Well-tailored information to a narrow niche is expensive because it’s valuable to that person.
We can’t put the YouTube genie back in the bottle. There might be a lot of crap on there, but I know people who watch hours of its content regularly, because there’s a lot of great stuff on there too. Everything, when it comes to media, has to compete with free. Anderson’s argument–from his blog and elsewhere, so I assume it’s the same in his book–is that the best way to compete with free is to get ahead of it the curve and be free, too. So a TV show might give away content free on broadcast TV, then on Hulu for a limited time, but also sell DVDs and individual episodes.
Or, as in the case of the New Yorker, a magazine can be sold on the Kindle and on the newstand, but still give away certain articles online for a limited time. Like his review of Free. That I just linked to, and you can read for free. Gladwell’s magazine seems to be doing exactly what Anderson is advocating.