Why Buy Content, Photogs' Deaths in Libya and the Awl's Victory Lap: It's the Week's Best Media Writing

Cory Doctorow Comes up With Pitches for Paying for Content

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Why, in an era when the lion's share of news and entertainment is available free, would anyone pay for a news story or a movie or song? For media types, it's the central question of our time, sliced and diced daily. But for all the thought devoted to the topic, one important constituent is often left out: the consumer. What's the motivation for the Average Joe to play by the rules and fork over $1.29 for the new Lady Gaga single when he can download the torrent gratis? In an epic work of explanation appearing in The Guardian, BoingBoing founder Cory Doctorow surveys the various "propositions for the purchase of digital goods," coming up with pitches that span the moral, the ethical, the legal and the practical.

It's a must-read for anyone who wants to figure out how to convince people to pony up for content, which should be just about anyone in today's media industry. Crucially, Mr. Doctorow doesn't dip into content ideology, but instead looks at each argument on its face. Here's an excerpt:

Buy this because paying money will delivery high quality. Some bootlegs are unreliable or of poor quality. I once had a well-meaning friend give me a pirate Rolling Stones cassette for my ninth birthday; the bootlegger saved money, squeezing the 45-minute album onto a 30-minute tape by fading out each song two-thirds of the way through. In some instances, this matters -- you want what you acquire to be a faithful copy of the work you're after. But inferior packaging and labels are unlikely to bother most purchasers, who are likely to stick the media on a shelf and forget it, possibly ripping it first if it's especially good.

But this pitch only works to the extent that the paid-for item is indeed of high quality. When anti-copying restrictions are added to media, it actually lowers their quality relative to the illegitimate item. I often hear from parents who download unauthorised cartoons for their kids because the DVDs come with long, unskippable (or difficult-to-skip) adverts, the worst of which deploy "pester power" tactics intended to get kids to nag their parents to buy something. As far as these parents are concerned, spending money gets them a product that much worse than the free version.

The annual awarding of the Pulitzer Prizes this week was a useful reminder that there's a reason for the endless pissing matches over content models. A grimmer reminder of the stakes was the loss of two photojournalists in Libya. That the death of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros was initially posted on Facebook is a sign of the times, examined beautifully by Teru Kuwayama on PBS' IdeaLab blog. Mr. Kuwayama, a war photographer himself, isn't outraged. He knows that the photojournalists wouldn't have been bothered by the tweeting of their deaths. Instead he offers a short, chilling meditation on what it means to die in public in an age of real-time news sharing:

For Tim and Chris, there weren't any media ground rules, and in rebel-controlled territory in Libya, there was no internet blackout. News of their deaths was transmitted across a personal social network that happened to be composed of professional communicators. The information wasn't delivered by broadcast dumb-bombs -- it moved like laser-guided munitions, tracking and hunting through a guidance system of "friends," "likes," and "shares," steadily closing in on its targets with a speed and precision that conventional media couldn't dream of.

The Awl, despite not doing much aggregation and despite consistently pumping out a mix of un-categorizable, un-SEO'd content, is making it. It's now two years old, profitable and apparently still doing things the way its founders want to. That's a pretty rare achievement at web publishing operations today, which typically start with good intentions and then swerve pretty abruptly into page-view whoredom. On his personal Tumblr, "Money, Cash, Ho's," Publisher David Cho takes a charming, modest little victory lap, especially notable for the following "tablecloth" metaphor:

As far as actual success and how we are sort of too stubborn for our own good, it essentially comes down to the now standardized model that exists for how to build a large, behemoth, words-based content website. It's sort of easy? Create a huge mountain of garbage statistics of audience and inventory, and then place a tablecloth of seemingly intelligent content to cover it like a veil. There are obviously exceptions to this model, the most exceptional, non-old publication to do this being Gawker, but when it comes to your HuffPo's or whatever, that's essentially the shady ass blueprint, and you know what, it works incredibly well. Now, for better or for worse, we don't do that -- which is much more of Choire [Sicha] and Alex [Balk]'s call than my own, but I trust their editorial sensibilities, and at the end of the day, I think we've figured out a way to balance it all anyways, or we try to exercise some integrity.

NPR's Linda Holmes' lovely little essay on what it means to be well-read makes a distinction between "culling" and "surrendering." The former is about making choices based on what you have time for, the latter is the acknowledgement that there isn't time enough for everything, that "well-read" is not a destination:

What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash." You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you've thrown out so much at once. The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don't talk about rap; it's not important. Don't talk about anyone famous; it isn't important. And by the way, don't tell me it is important, because that would mean I'm ignoring something important, and that's ... uncomfortable. That's surrender. It's an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we're missing less painful. There are people who choose not to watch television -- and plenty of people don't, and good for them -- who find it easier to declare that they don't watch television because there is no good television (which is culling) than to say they choose to do other things, but acknowledge that they're missing out on Mad Men (which is surrender).

While I may not agree entirely with Ms. Holmes' model, it's an interesting one. With the massive volume of culture that's worth consuming today, it's probably worth giving a few minutes here and there to thinking about the biases and priorities you employ in deciding what you spend your time on. Or, you can just read this column every week.

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