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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.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
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  • MichaelJ

    “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.”

    Read for free, pay for Print.

    Print is not just a container for the information in it. It is a physical object that is valued for different reasons by different people at different times.

    For the serious thinker, a book is the best way to fix the ideas and facts so they can rumble around the head in the service of getting new ideas.

    For most everyone else, a book is a token. As in “people like us, buy this book” or “this would be a perfect present for…”

    For some people, a book is the occasion for a social interaction – book reading groups and children’s books that are read by parents to children.

    For self publishers a book is a token that they are “real writers” and the story they have to tell is important- usually for their friends and families.

    I am struck by how often writers and journalists believe that the words themselves are the value that people should pay for.

    It’s just another version of the “bad customer” syndrome. Nothing wrong with my product, it’s just the customer doesn’t want to give me money for it.

  • Tim Windsor

    At the risk of being Mister Contrarian, I’m not so sure Alan’s post “backfired.” The conversation it sparked was lively and reasonably civil. And it even spilled over to here.


  • Mathew Ingram

    That’s a good point, Michael. And yes, Tim — by that definition I guess Alan’s question didn’t backfire :-)

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  • Frymaster

    Head of the nail, please meet this hammer. Artificial scarcity, please meet obsolescence.

    All seriousness aside, what’s with this “…which, somehow, Providence will monetize”? Look, we’ll do our part, but we’re not paying for the whole damn thing!

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  • Jimmy Olsen

    So how am I going to get paid?