I'm amazed at how good free content is
— Morgan Housel (@morganhousel) April 3, 2017
We live in interesting times. As Morgan notes above there is an incredible amount of free, content available online. At the same time content creators are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet. The startup world is littered with companies that have tried, in one way or another, to build a business on the back on quality content but have failed along the way. Here are a number of posts that all touch on this topic in one way or another:
Jason Kottke at kottke.org talks about the value of staying independent especially in light of the news that Medium is pivoting in a very different direction. Kottke writes about how he dodged a bullet:
Over the past year, when I was thinking about how best to steward kottke.org into a financially stable future, moving to Medium was definitely an option. But never, in my mind, a very serious option. It was just too many eggs in one basket for a small publisher like me, especially when Medium is still obviously trying to figure out if they’re even in the egg-carrying business.
Not only are bloggers staying independent, so are authors. James Altucher writing at the Huffington Post talks about the process by which he became a successful, independent self-published author. Altucher writes:
I’ve done many things since my first desire to write a book. And most of them have twisted themselves into misery.
But I love books. I love writing. I want to share that with you. I want you to have the pleasure I have felt from seeing my own book out there.
And maybe I want to justify my choice. But I believe in this also. I want you to share my pleasure.
John Gruber at Daring Fireball talks about the demise of The Deck, a low-key advertising network for tech and design types that both Gruber and Kottke were participants in. In a world of slimy web advertising, The Deck did things right. Gruber writes:
What hurts far more than the loss in revenue is the principle of the damn thing. The Deck did it right, and it worked for over a decade. I’m sure I would’ve gone full-time writing Daring Fireball sooner or later, but I couldn’t have done it when I did, in 2006, without The Deck.
Druce Vertes at StreetEye talks about how the ethos of the web has changed over time. This past election cycle showed the many ways in which social media can be used to manipulate the media, and vice versa. The challenge for publishers and informed consumers is trying to highlight real content versus fake news. Vertes writes:
I think if we could somehow build a pervasive ‘pay it forward’ karma and reputation ecosystem that rewarded people for sharing quality and burying fake news and garbage, and somehow get back some of the old sharing ethic, it would go a long way. That’s what I’d be thinking about if I were a VC or online community entrepreneur. Tools to let people signal quality and build credibility and fight the noise machines.
Advertising is a crucial source of revenue for us. When you look at a Slate page without loading the ads next to it, we don’t get paid, and that makes it harder for us to pay the great people—reporters and writers, designers and engineers, producers and sales reps—who make Slate what it is. We lost between $1.5 million and $2 million from ad blocking last year. That’s money that we need to cover the salaries of our team.
One hopeful sign is rising number of online subscriptions to traditional newspapers in the age of Trump. A number of papers including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post have seen a surge in subscriptions. The challenge will be sustaining that increase. The big question is whether the desire to pay (full boat) for “real news” will sustain itself over time.
Building community on the web isn’t easy. It takes, time, patience and capital. Entities like StockTwits have able to do this. Many other communities have gone long by the wayside. Free content, like that from Philosophical Economics, is great. However most web creators need to generate some sort of value in return for their work, otherwise it will go away. I don’t know what the answer is, but the tension between our desire for free, quality content and the need for content creators (and curators) to get paid is growing.