The idea that “information wants to be free” is one of the most dominant themes of the last 10 years. Best-sellers have been written on the idea. Business have raised (and lost) millions around the idea that free information, surrounded by ads, is the only business model of the future.
“Information wants to be free” was uttered more than a quarter-century ago by a guy named Stewart Brand. What people tend to forget about Brand’s quote was that he said something really important right before he got to the “free” part: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life.”
The dueling nature of what information “wants” is much in the air this spring, as the New York Times rolls out its paid-digital-content model. Unsurprisingly, the “information wants to be free” troops are out in force, pointing out both the technical loopholes in the paywall and trumpeting loudly their prediction that the Times’ business model will prove to be a failure. While the design of the paywall is fair game for debate, the Times’ move to charge for content is more mainstream that it appears.
Last week, Times blogger Nate Silver published a breakdown of the sources that were most represented in the Google News and Google Blog search over the past month. Though Google is by no means a defender of paid content, Silver’s list is dominated by outlets that had their start offline. Only one online-originated site makes the top 10, and only five make the top 50.
What’s more, a closer look at the top five (the AP, the Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg) shows something even more interesting (as former WSJ reporter Keith Winstein pointed out): every single one of them charges explicitly for digital content. Now, the models are all different (the wire services have B2B models, the Times and the Journal now sell subscriptions), but they share the huge commonality of collecting dollars for information.
What does this mean for media relations? The places that are more influential — at least according to Google — also happen to be places where content itself (not the surrounding advertising) is worth cash money, meaning that subscription-only outlets are worth a closer look. That doesn’t mean that the era of the amateur is dead, but it certainly suggests that one way to look for valuable information, to go back to Brand, is to look for expensive information. After all, that’s what information “wants,” right?