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Feb. 18, 2009, 12:36 a.m.

Alan Mutter’s question backfires

Alan Mutter is a former journalist-turned-entrepreneur who writes an excellent blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur, where he takes on various aspects of the newspaper industry from time to time. One of his recent posts, however, tries to make a point about the validity — or necessity — of charging for content online by using author and journalist/blogger Jeff Jarvis as an example. Not only does his post fail to make this case, but it actually winds up making the exact opposite point.

Mutter’s argument, in a nutshell, is that while Jeff Jarvis is telling everyone that they should be giving their content away for nothing, and that “free is a business model,” he himself is selling an old-fashioned book the old-fashioned way — for cash, in other words — as well as a version for the Kindle e-book reader and a video of himself making some of the central points from the book. As Mutter puts it:

Given Jeff’s deeply held belief that content should be free, why is he charging a retail price of $26.99 for his new book?

The central thesis of Jeff’s book, “What Would Google Do?”, seems to be that music, news stories, legal advice and other types of intellectual property should be free to roam the web to create links and communities which, somehow, Providence eventually will monetize.

So, why is Jeff charging $27.99 for the audio version of his new book?

This no doubt seemed like a slam-dunk argument to Alan. After all, as he notes towards the end of his post, Jarvis even admits in his book that he is “a hypocrite” for not just giving his book away online (although it’s worth noting that you can read the entire thing through his publisher’s website, if you so desire). But I think Jarvis is actually a little too hard on himself in that quote, and that Mutter draws almost exactly the wrong conclusion from this case.

Why? A number of commenters on Reflections of a Newsosaur, including my Nieman colleague Tim Windsor, make the same point that occurred to me: Jarvis has been writing about his theories on content online and new business models, and how more companies should think like Google, for months, and possibly even years. He has been giving those ideas and conclusions away virtually for free (apart from some measly Google AdSense dollars) for most of that time. Anyone can get Jeff’s content whenever they want. But if you want it packaged in a nice and convenient way, such as a book (either the regular or the Kindle kind) then you have to pay.

Jarvis’s content giveaway on his blog, as several people have noted (including Jarvis himself, in a comment on Mutter’s post) effectively marketed — and possibly even created a market — for his ideas, both in book form and in the form of consulting gigs and speaking engagements. Those are ways of adding value to that content. While there isn’t a direct corollary with newspapers and other media outlets, the concept is the same: give away content, and then find ways of adding value to it — packaging it in a convenient form, for example, or adding to it in some useful fashion, creating a relationship around it — and then monetize that.

Alan asks the question “What Would Jarvis Do?” in a sarcastic way, but it’s actually not such a bad question after all.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2009, 12:36 a.m.
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