/// The original digital sin – why news content was given away for free
Three of America’s leading veteran media operators decided to find out what has happened to journalism over the last 20 years. Specifically, they wanted to know about the impact of the digital revolution on the news business.
So they created an oral history project, known as Riptide, in which they interviewed 60 people who have lived through the disruption.
Now the trio – John Huey, Time Inc’s editor-in-chief until last year; Martin Nisenholtz, the New York Times’s digital chief until December 2011 and still a consultant; and Paul Sagan, executive vice chairman of Akamai Technologies – are planning to share the 50 and more hours of video interviews.
The material will go up on the web at DigitalRiptide.org on 9 September. But they have been writing about their discoveries here and talking about them here, with a transcript available here.
Reading through the excerpts and the transcript of their conversation, one persistent topic emerges around what Walter Isaacson, former Time managing editor and now CEO of the Aspen Institute, calls “the original sin question”. From the start, should content have been given away for free?
Sagan is certain. It would have been impossible to charge for access, he says.
“You would have made yourself irrelevant by creating today what you’d call a paywall… There were forces like Reuters who had no stake in the game here, who sold their wires to Yahoo! who wasn’t in the news business, but they wanted content for page views, which was the currency at the time.
And once that kind of commodity news, if you will, was set free on the web, and users found it rapidly, there was no other model.”
That is backed up by one of the interviewees, David Graves, the former Reuters and Yahoo! executive, who recounted his experiences in 1993:
“We had just reached agreement to put a couple of million dollars into a little company called Yahoo, pre-IPO. As a concession for us doing this really risky investment, they agreed that Reuters would have exclusive rights to provide content to Yahoo! for five years.”
And here’s the crucial bit. Graves added:
“For the first part of the internet, your stock valuation was driven by your audience size, because nobody was making any rational decisions about what things were worth.
So for some number of years all you cared about was how many millions of people were clicking on Yahoo! in a given month. Fifty thousand a day kept getting added… Certainly, any kind of pay situation would’ve interfered with that thing.”
Apart from looking back, the trio also wondered what is going to happen next for online journalism in terms of its business model.
Tim Berners-Lee, the world wide web inventor, told them:
“One of the solutions may be to get payment protocols on the web – new payment protocols – so it’s easy for me, as I read your blog or as I read your journal, the output of your journalism, I might be able to tell my browser, ‘You know what? Whenever I really enjoy an article, I’m going to hit this button, and I want to pay the guy who wrote it, and I want to pay the guy who pointed me at it,’ because I really appreciate that.”
Both Huey and Sagan are sceptical about the micro payments idea, however. “There’s too much free content out there,” says Huey, “too many places to get information for free.”
Sagan agrees: “I’m not sure asking people to pay a nickel every time is going to add up to enough to make it work.”
In other words, just as we know, funding journalism over the coming decades remains a large headache without apparent easy solution. All the same, it will be fascinating to see and hear the interviews when they are released on 9 September.
The Guardian - Roy Greenslade