(Short) Information wants to be free

17 11 2009

Harper’s Magazine senior editor Bill Wasik says short information will always be free.

He’s probably right, but let’s be honest. He has an agenda to say so.

Short information (newspapers, blogs, short video, etc.) is taking away readers from long prose publications publishing online, like Harper’s, that want to differentiate from short information and monetize. Wasik says that Kindle is an amazing device because it provides a new model for long information (Magazines, journals, books, etc.) Short, amateur information isn’t accessible on Kindle, so editors of publications love it because they don’t have to compete with the novelty content that they’re losing to on the Web.

Wasik says there hasn’t been a profitable business model for short content. So long as the majority of short information is produced by amateurs, there won’t be. He speculates that “some of these companies” that host short content “will fail” and create scarcity for the consumer, which may create a value proposition. If he means newspapers publishing online, he’s right. If he means that YouTube and Vimeo and Blogger will fail, he’s wrong. The barriers to creation and publication online are long gone, so people will continue to create short information on those sites, or any other sites that cater to them.

Some long information is also available for free on the Web (Google Books, NY Times Magazine) and that will perpetuate the free model for short content, too. Short information is free because, in large part, people who create that information want it to be free. I know that in America we typically want to monetize everything, but the last couple years have shown that people have other immediate motivators (exposure, notoriety, peer responses) to create. As amateurs continue to create competitive content and offer it for free, the public will accept no higher price.

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Hulu is doomed, but that’s a good thing

7 11 2009

Hulu is a great idea. Offering free content on the Internet is the only way to compete with, well, free video content on YouTube and available through pirating Web site. Unfortunately, whereas Hulu was positioned to be the Trojan Horse for network television on the Internet, it will instead be the scapegoat for the networks’ failures.

In and All Thing D article, outgoing chief of CBS Digital, Quincy Smith said,

“I don’t hate Hulu. Hulu’s world-class video viewing. What I don’t understand is, why license all that content to something that works that well, that seamlessly, yet–without the economic model around it?”

Smith is mistaken if he thinks the free-for-all market opportunities on the Internet will match that of television. While the Internet provides networks access to broader audiences, it presents a different market where consumers have real buying power in the form of access and choice. Not all products have equal success in different markets anyway. What makes Apple successful in the U.S., doesn’t necessarily make it successful in Europe or Asia. Television networks should recognize that they don’t have an upper-hand on the Internet because they can’t limit access to content the way they do with broadcast scheduling. Hulu is a $700 million market, but television comes in at $120 billion. OK. Maybe $700 million isn’t so bad on the Internet, and the networks should accept that.

Of course, they don’t. They’re greed-driven and blind to the differences between broadcast television and Internet markets.

Here’s a dumb idea (via Chase Carey, chief operating officer of News Corp.) for how to make Hulu more profitable: Go with a mix of paid and free content. Yeah, ask The New York Times about how that worked out. It didn’t. People will continue to visit Hulu, but they’ll just watch the free stuff. At least the Times had an edge in value with its paid content being intellectual property (columns) and access to unique news reporting. Hulu would just be charging for people to watch reruns.

Hulu’s model will likely change to some kind of paid service, because Wall Street said so, and will (unfortunately) fail for two reasons:

Legacy – People who use Hulu today haven’t had to pay before and they like that. Few will pay if they’re asked to because they’re die-hard fans of particular programming or are moralists. The rest will move to a competing station’s free content (Where’s HBO at?) or to the pirated content they probably already consumed before Hulu.

Everyone remembers Napster, right? That little site single-handedly changed the music economy (albeit illegally), and paved the way for online retailers like iTunes to top sales over big box brick-and-mortar stores. Now, iTunes is a paid service, but it started that way. Napster tried to transition from a pirating service to a legitimate paid service and has barely managed to stay afloat as a business or in consumer mindshare. A new service (maybe iTunes itself) can enter the market and dominate television with a paid model, but no free service can make the transition to a paid service and have success. Hulu won’t. Consumers don’t have an appetite for that.

People won’t pay double – You know what consumers really don’t have an appetite for? Paying for the same service twice. Yuck. A lot of people who consume content on Hulu probably already have at least a basic cable subscription. They probably access Hulu to watch a missed episode or pass the time on lunch breaks. These people will not pay to watch NBC of Fox twice over. It’s uneconomical from a consumer perspective. They’ll just be more punctual with DVR scheduling.

It’s too bad that Hulu is doomed to fail because it’s a fine a corporate media service. Its success attracting viewers may actually be reasonable by Internet monetization standards. Unfortunately, the network executives have their broadcast television goggles on and with their false expectations will change Hulu in the direction of its demise.

That’s a good thing though. It took Napster to get the music industry to change (or crash, depending on who you ask), and Hulu will be the scapegoat for networks and sacrificial lamb for a reasonable, mainstream Internet television service.





A picture’s worth the same as words online

4 11 2009

I’ve never read graphic novels, but I read my share of comics and comic books when I was young. I don’t at all believe that text is the “currency of storytelling.” Rather, I think that both text and image are equal partners. More often than not text is a more efficient, effective way of telling a story (and more easily distributed, even in the digital age), but that shouldn’t at all devalue the impact of images in storytelling.

When thinking about mainstream forms of storytelling, I see text and images taking different roles. In most online journalism, text drives storytelling while images are complementary. In broadcast journalism, images drive the storytelling while text (as audio) is complementary. The same goes for movies. As distribution methods become more accessible, I believe that images (whether they be graphics, illustrations, movies, etc.) will become more prevalent. Already, the Web’s largest storytelling site – YouTube – is all visual and contains relatively no text.

Drew’s question about how the Web interface affects the user experiences is a relevant one. It allows for infinitely deep, non-linear experiences. Every story can become a “choose-your-own-adventure.” It creates greater opportunities than traditional print storytelling mediums to include imagery of any form.  Amateur storytellers are using photos on blogs, Twitter and Facebook to tell their stories, especially when digital cameras and smartphones provide easy ways to upload photos and share. News sites are creating rich graphic illustrations to explain, for example, urban architecture proposals or the anatomy of a virus.

Graphic novels are a primitive form of telling stories with imagery compared to the possibilities today, but both reinforce that images are a primary rather than secondary force of storytelling.