Posted by: Ciaran | September 20, 2010

The culture of free

This post also appears on the Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists blog looking at the topic of making Generation Y pay for content.

When I was younger, I used to like going to the library. The freedom to choose 10 books to take home, read, lose, find and rush back with on the expiry date was – and still remains – an exciting and pleasant prospect.

And so began my introduction into the culture of free. When I was a little older, and at secondary school, visits to my friends’ houses would mean the opportunity to listen to music they had downloaded from sites like Napster. (Incidentally, this is not an attempt to skirt the truth and blame others for being complicit in downloading music illegally. I genuinely never used Napster or Limewire or any of those programmes, which held for me both fascination and fear – both of being caught or of downloading some awful virus – the latter obviously outweighing the former).

But again, I got used to experiencing – and when people kindly burned CDs for me, owning – completely free of charge something I would have gladly paid for, if I had the funds to do so.

And so it came to pass with newspapers. First I stopped buying them during the week, when I could read them for nothing in our sixth form common room. And then, when I went to university, I practically stopped buying them altogether, preferring instead to spend an hour or two every morning after breakfast sifting through the websites of nearly every national newspaper.

Even though they were cheap in our union shop, I only ever picked them up to read expert analysis or comment on the news – usually, by the time the paper was in my hand, I had read not only the news in it but the newer versions of those stories too.

Newspapers were only for journeys or days when I had no access to the internet, like time spent holidaying or staying with friends or family.

Once again, I was getting for free something I would have quite happily continued to pay for.

Looking back on all that, it seems like there is a curse of availability. As soon as something is out there, freely – meaning both widely and free of charge – the temptation to actually dip into your pocket and pay for it is substantially reduced.

So the prospect of making Generation Y pay for content looks, to me, highly unlikely. The genie is out of the bottle now, and it won’t go back in.

The only way forward is to exploit the areas which people will pay for, by finding the niche or gap in the market. For instance, library use is dwindling – largely, I would guess, down to the availability of cheap books not only online, but in places like charity shops. There is no need to make a special visit to the local library – just call in to Oxfam or some such as you walk by on the high street.

The same is true with music. I’ll use Spotify and Grooveshark to listen to music, rather than actually buy it. But I’ll buy a ticket to a gig, or a live show on DVD, or go and watch the biopic of the artist off the back of that.

The key is in diversifying to survive, and finding what people want – and are prepared to pay for – that they cannot easily get for free elsewhere. In media terms – and particularly newspaper terms – that might be in customisable apps, or selling discrete portions of output (perhaps by micro-payment, perhaps by subscription service), or in podcasts or web chats or in something quite different.

But whatever lies ahead, the future is not in trying to put the genie back into the bottle. It is in finding a new lamp to rub.


  1. Not to put any more pressure on you or anything, but when are you going to update your blog? 😉 x

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