Compensation For Writers

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: It has recently come to my attention that the New York Times is planning on charging for access to its online content in the near future. Although I am a big fan of free, learning this filled me with relief. I would be more than happy to pay something for the hours I spend every Sunday morning perusing the New York Times online, a small percentage of which are spent feeling guilty that I should be enjoying such well-written and informative content for absolutely nothing. At least when I spend hours each week listening to NPR, I have the option of donating to support them (and am exhorted to, during their all too frequent fund raisers). But the Times Online has never asked me for anything. The only way I could think of to support them is by subscribing to them in print, which I have done in the past, but at this point I prefer the online version. I have grown accustomed to navigating through their well-designed website, and enjoy reading the comments posted after many of the articles. Ultimately, I am relieved to learn that the Times has decided that their quality content and website are worth paying for. Top-notch journalism is not cheap. It costs money to pay writer and editors; for research and travel. It’s high time the New York Times started acting more like a business and less like a publicly-funded library.

The other evening I was surfing the internet when I came across an article in the Atlantic. The topic interested me, and it appeared to be an interesting and well-researched piece, so I settled in to read it. A third of the way in, I paused, feeling a twinge of guilt. Although I have never paid for online content, part of me still couldn’t believe that I was reading this article for free. The author had clearly devoted a large amount of time and energy to researching and writing it. Certainly they had been paid for the article at the time they wrote it, but neither they nor the publication they had written it for were seeing any kind of revenue from me. They were receiving some exposure through my discovering and enjoying their article, but I was a fairly casual reader, and didn’t expect to find myself seeking out other articles of theirs. And even if I had, the only ones I would have bothered reading would have likely been free too. More and more as I discover great sources of news and entertainment online, I find myself wondering, how is this free? Who is ultimately paying for this? My fear is that the answer is: the authors.

As an aspiring writer, I worry about the growing unprofitability of writing for a living due to the enormous amount of free online content. The music industry has long been fighting against the illegal distribution of songs and albums; those who produce and direct movies work tirelessly to protect their profits from pirates who sell or post movies online. Yet writers, whose opportunities to work for any kind of living wage also appear to be vanishing, don’t seem to be putting up much of a fuss. It’s as though there is already so much free written content online, that they don’t feel that readers can draw the line any longer between well-written, quality content which should be worth paying for, and the endless supply of useless blogs, inaccurate news, celebrity gossip sites and other drivel that make up much of the worldwide web.

That’s another reason I am glad that the New York Times is stepping up to the plate and drawing the line at providing free up to the minute news and information: If they do, other websites may decide to follow suit. There is the argument that those whose favorite websites stop being free will just read other websites instead, and that will probably happen to a certain extent, but not in every case. Many readers know the difference between meaningful, valuable content, and the rest of what’s out there. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

STEVE MURPHY: Lots of people agree with Molly, and believe that high-quality content is so valuable, it shouldn’t be given out for free. But that assumes that value can only be set by the end user of the content. Happily for me there’s a very simple way to prove this is the only model: television. Television has been giving out free content for decades. Turn on any TV, and even without cable, free entertainment is beamed through the air and into your face. Hours of it. As much as you can watch. For free.

Few would argue that at least some of that content, whether it’s your style or not, is valuable. It costs quite a lot to make and distribute a TV show, and requires a huge capital investment without a guarantee that money will be made back. And yet you, the viewer, pay nothing. Not in dollars, anyway. Instead, you’re paying with your attention. The better the free content, the more you’ll watch. The more you watch, the more advertisers get access to your eyeballs. The more you talk about your favorite shows, the more other people start to watch, and the more valuable that show becomes… and yet those enjoying the content get to enjoy it free of charge.

And so the end user’s pocketbook does not have to be the sole measure of value. Some magazines sell subscriptions for $12/year. Is that undervaluing its content? No, because the amount of money taken in by readers pales in comparison to the amount taken in by advertisers. The more people who subscribe, the more readers advertisers are guaranteed, and the more they pay. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only reason some magazines haven’t tried dropping their subscription price to $1 or $0 is because they don’t want to appear cheap (read: without value), which is just deliciously ironic.

When you go to a website with excellent content repeatedly, you are voting with your clicks. Sites that have the most attractive content (including content, subject matter, community and aesthetics) will get the most traffic. Sites that have less attractive content will not do as well. A site then must build on its popularity by strengthening its community, giving people a reason to come back, because they feel like they’re part of something.

And then you have just what a favorite TV show or a magazine with lots of subscribers has: a dedicated community on which advertisers can feed. A captive audience, with needs well-targeted by the site’s subject matter and slant. Give advertisers access to that captive audience, and you’ll find the value of a site isn’t measured by how much it can charge a user to read it, but how much it can charge an advertiser for access to its readers.

Molly talks specifically about the lack of ‘defense’ against piracy for writers. But David Pogue just wrote an article for the New York Times in which he details a fascinating experiment. Most e-books are sold encoded with DRM (Digital Rights Management), which attempts to restrict the rights of the end-user, purportedly to fight piracy. But this DRM tends to harm real consumers, making it impossible to use the same content on multiple devices or to download it multiple times, among other restrictions. Due to these inconveniences, DRM actually fuels piracy, pushing people to steal copies of a work so they can simply read it in the way they prefer, instead of how a seller wishes they’d use it.

And so David Pogue released one of his books as an e-book… but without DRM. The result? Sales of his book went up. Why? Because he allowed the end user to do with the book as they please. Sure, the book’s being pirated all over, but that doesn’t translate into lost sales. People will buy when they see value. Piracy should be seen as a marketing tool, a way to get your content into the hands of someone who simply would not pay for it. And then maybe they tell friends they loved it, and those friends buy the content. Or maybe the next book Pogue writes, a pirate will buy because they enjoyed the previous one so much. In any case, piracy did not harm his sales, and that means his book retained its value in the marketplace even when it was easy to get for free.

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