A storm has been brewing at The New York Times for a while now. Ever since TimesSelect -- the paid digital version of the Times -- was cancelled back in 2007, the "content wants to be free" crowd has danced around its proverbial grave, singing the equivalent of "ding, dong, paid media is dead."
It's hard to argue against that viewpoint given the reality we're seeing: long-time newspapers closing their print editions entirely (see Seattle Post-Intelligencer), august magazines such as Gourmet shutting their doors, newspaper subscriptions at unprecedented lows, not to mention the power that Google has over the traffic that newspapers and magazines generate. Worse, our consumer surveys show us that 80% of US adults will choose not to pay for online newspaper or magazine content if they can't get it for free (see my colleague Sarah Rotman Epps' post on this for more).
It is amidst this maelstrom that nytimes.com is reportedly considering erecting a new pay wall -- one presumes a shiner, prettier one than the last wall, but a pay wall nonetheless. Read New York mag's take on the situation here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bad idea whose time has unfortunately come.
Today is the big day: when Comcast announces it has taken a controlling share of NBCU in the latest mega media merger. And though the media have been covering it rapaciously for months now, the obligatory reaction stories are now being posted, analyzing something we should really know by now, namely:
This deal isn't about clamping down on runaway digital video content to save cable's collective hide.
If you're not careful, you may run into people who assert the contrary. Rafat Ali of paidcontent.org, whose opinion I generally value, earlier today titled his remarks "Comcast-NBC Deal Isn't About Digital." By which he means it's not about purely digital content (generation or delivery). While that's true, when he then goes on to say that Comcast's digital moves (thePlatform, Fancast) don't have "the potential to change the game for the cable giant," he is 100% wrong.
Because the future of cable is entirely dependent on digital. The future of all media of any sort is dependent on digital. Ergo so is the deal.
2009 has been a breakout year for eReaders and eBooks--device sales will have more than tripled by the end of this year, and content sales are up 176% for the year--but 2010 will be anything but boring. Here are Forrester's predictions for what will happen in the next year:
Allow me to add my voice to the chorus of those applauding the fall of the Berlin wall twenty years ago this month. It was this event that taught me firsthand why revolution is simultaneously impossible as well as inevitable. In 1986 I sat with other students from around the globe just blocks from the wall and debated whether it would ever come down. The naïve among us insisted freedom was imperative: It was inevitable. The others asked if we had stopped to think about the massive relocation of people, economic resources, and government structures that such a revolution would require: It was impossible.
Until it happened, just three years later.
The author, pictured left, photographed in front of the Brandenburg
Gate from what was then the East German side
In the past year, we've seen a palpable shift from newspaper and magazine publishers with regard to paid content--they still don't know how to make paid content work, but they know they want to try. A recent report from the American Press Institute underscores this trend: The API reports that 60% of newspaper executives say they're considering paid content options, even though currently 90% don't charge for any content online.
Consumers, though, have different ideas. In a new Forrester report, we find that most consumers (80%) say they wouldn't bother to access newspaper and magazine content online if it were no longer free (no surprise), and the rest are split about how they'd like to pay for content:
It's especially notable that, while publishers talk about micropayments so much you could design a drinking game around the word, only 3% of consumers say they'd prefer this method of payment for newspaper and magazine content.
Today Roku launched two new players to complement the original $99 Roku player. Perhaps somewhat obviously, the two new players come in at $79 and $129, allowing Roku to test whether there's price elasticity in this market.
I'm not sure this was a necessary move. The cheaper box (called Roku SD), simply removes HD playback from the original Roku Player (now called Roku HD). The $129 version offers wireless-n wi-fi streaming to deliver dramatically better video quality. I don't personally need that since I hook up my Roku player -- which is in constant demand in my home -- via ethernet. (Yes, being a nerd has its advantages including a fully self-wired home that has over 24 ethernet ports in it.) So while I can see the value of the more expensive box for wi-fi users who have wireless-n routers (do you know if you do? betcha don't know), I think muddying the waters with 3 boxes instead of a maximum of 2 just feels like unnecessary complexity. A bit like Amazon announcing it would sell two versions of the Kindle in the US, one that's domestic only and one that can roam abroad, a decision doesn't appear likely to last very long.
I bought Chris Andersen's book "Free" and read it cover to cover. This is notable, I think, both for the buying and the reading. First the buying: I bought it hardcover, at my local bookstore, for $26.95 plus tax (I'm sure my friends at Hyperion are pleased). It was available cheaper on Amazon, but I couldn't wait for it; it was available for Kindle ($9.99, previously free); Sony eBookstore ($11.99, or you can get a "bundle" with The Long Tail, for the same price, and I don't see why you wouldn't); it wasn't yet available for the Cool-er Reader on coolerbooks.com.
Today Sony announced that its public domain offerings from Google in its eBook store has reached 1 million volumes. That's a lot of eBooks. For context, the Library of Congress has 32 million books and is the world's largest library; Harvard's collection is 5th largest at 15 million books. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) So we're merrily trucking along at digitizing the world's collection of books.
A reporter asked me yesterday whether I thought Chris Anderson was right, or whether I thought he was too glib. I don't think an either/or question.
What I've come to realize while researching and writing reports like our paid content forecast is that yes, free can be a business model--but only for much, much smaller businesses than most media companies as they exist today, with their Manhattan skyscrapers or sprawling Hollywood studios, thousands of employees, unions, factories, warehouses, and debt obligations.
So Anderson is right, but not right enough to be much comfort to the media companies on which we depend.
Jeffrey Trachtenberg and Geoffrey Fowler's article in the Wall Street Journal today really got me thinking. Trachtenberg and Fowler report that some publishers are withholding the release of eBooks until the hardcover printing has run its course--which we see as the latest manifestation of publishers' shock and denial of the digital revolutionand the catastrophic change it will wreak on their industry.
In the article, the reporters quote a literary agent comparing eBooks to DVDs, arguing that the film industry would never release a DVD at the same time as a theater release, so why should publishers cannibalize hardcover sales by releasing eBooks simultaneously? Well, here's why we think publishers are wrong: