Future Imperfect, Part 1 

When media content is free, it's worth every penny

NEW YORK—August J. Pollak was thrilled when the Huffington Post asked him to blog for them. Joining the widely read liberal Web site was a great break, thought the astute political cartoonist/blogger whose work appears at the perfectly named "Some Guy with a Web site." Then they told him about his salary: zero.

"I love the Huffington Post, and I love the exposure I get from them," Pollak told me. "But it's never going to pay my rent."

He's right. The Huffington Post, capitalized to the tune of $10 million, employs 43 full-time employees, all of whom presumably receive actual cash money, and health benefits, and maybe even a 401(k), for their efforts. But, USA Today reports, "it has no plans to begin paying bloggers. Ever." Ken Lerer, company co-founder, former Time Warner executive, and probably himself in it for the money, says: "That's not our financial model. We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company." Sorry, August. Vampire capitalism offers its sincere regrets to you, and your 1,600 unpaid colleagues. (Disclosure: I interviewed Pollak for my alternative cartoon anthology Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists. We are friends.)

Content is king, dot-com gurus of the 1990s told us. People who made cool pictures, songs and strings of words cashed in. Then Andrew Odlyzko of AT&T Labs wrote an influential essay titled "Content Is Not King."

"Content certainly has all the glamour," wrote Odlyzko. "What content does not have is money ... The annual movie theater ticket sales in the United States are well under $10 billion. The telephone industry collects that much money every two weeks! Those 'commodity pipelines' attract much more spending than the glamorous 'content.'"

Leaders of America's corporate mass media have embraced a financial model that relies upon a fatal internal conflict. The future of media, they believe, belongs to "consolidators" like the Drudge Report and Huffington, who pull together content—in these examples, news stories and opinion columns—they don't pay for. But who will write the stuff they steal—er, consolidate?

In the short run, they're getting luminaries such as late JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. They buy the pitch, sold by scruffy cool 29-year-old guys who look like the Mac guy in the "Mac vs. PC" commercials, that the intangible benefits of exposure online will lead to tangible paychecks. In the long run, hacks and amateurs like the right-wing bloggers who destroyed Dan Rather's career at CBS by "debunking" his scoop about George W. Bush's Air National Guard records. (Rather, it turned out, was right all along. Sorry, Dan.) And who will produce boring old content in the really long run? No one worth paying attention to.

Hardly a day passes without finding a pitch from some wannabe freeloader in my e-mail. "Our magazine doesn't have a budget for content, but we'd love to use your cartoon about ... " "We can't offer a salary per se, but you would get amazing exposure to thousands of discrete users if ... " Content is still king. Online leeches just don't want to pay the kingmakers.

"Internet idealists like me have long had an easy answer for creative types ... who feel threatened by the unremunerative nature of our new Eden," computer scientist Jaron Lanier wrote recently in the New York Times: "Stop whining and join the party!" Like other old media types, I'm working overtime to try to smash these economic lemons into sweet, lucrative lemonade. In the meantime, I called the bank that holds my mortgage. "I don't have a budget to pay you per se," I cooed. "But think of the awesome prestige your corporation receives just by being associated with a cartoonist and columnist whose work is literally read by millions of—" Click. Citibank (Bangalore), Ltd., signing out.

So I'm cranky. I've already been through this give-it-away-for-the-exposure crap before. It wasn't any more fun in the 1980s than it is now. In my 20s, when I was starting on my quest to become a full-time dispenser of drawings mocking the president, I let shoestring operations like Poetry Halifax North, a tiny review in Nova Scotia, and Against The Current, a socialist magazine out of Detroit, print my cartoons for free. They didn't offer much exposure, but I needed the tearsheets. Not getting paid sucked, but giving away my "content" was understandable—my "clients" were broke.

Over the years, I got better known. Big newspapers and magazines published—and paid for—my cartoons. Working for free had paid off. I became a full-time cartoonist. But then the big newspapers and magazines started giving away their content. Violating the first rule of capitalism publishers became obsessed with securing "market share" online. It costs tens of millions of dollars a year to produce, but you can now read all of today's New York Times—plus special Web-only articles that don't appear in the print edition—for free.

The Times projects that online will account for 8 percent of its revenues this year. But that's not so impressive when you consider that NYTimes.com has 1,300 percent more readers than the Old Gray Lady. Why don't newspaper executives understand that a 50 percent market share, times online advertising rates that basically round off to zero, equals zero? Internet ad rates have been and will likely remain a joke.

Online media is growing too slowly to make up for the decline of print. "Despite the popular belief that young people are flocking to the Internet, [a Harvard University study] found that teenagers and young adults were twice as likely to get daily news from television than from the Web," reports The New York Times.

Print is dead, Internet evangelists have convinced media executives. But, financially, there is no Web. True, newspapers are boring, stodgy and losing circulation. But abandoning them in favor of their cross-your-fingers online successors is like getting rid of Saddam without planning for his successor.

Print media is dragging content providers into the abyss. First comes downsizing. Writers, cartoonists and photographers are losing their jobs to peers willing to do the work for less or, in the case of readers invited to submit their comments and images for the thrill of appearing in the local rag, nothing. Then they squeeze those who remain for pay cuts. A cartoon that runs today in Time, Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post—the most prestigious and widely disseminated forums in the United States—brings its creator less than The Village Voice would have paid for it in the 1980s.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Internet users won't pay, technology blogger Dan Bricklin asserted in a 2000 column: "People will pay money for things that give them emotional satisfaction, especially those things that involve interacting with others, or have a high emotion content, like music."

I think people are willing to pay for more than iTunes and text messages. So does Jaron Lanier, who now renounces his days as an information-wants-to-be-free cheerleader. "Information is free on the Internet," he writes, "because we designed it that way. We could design information systems so that people can pay for information—so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid."

Unless something changes soon, deprofessionalization will further erode journalistic quality. The resulting dumbing down of our politics and culture will accelerate. We can't get the toothpaste back into the tube. The Internet is here to stay. Unfortunately, the best way to make it more profitable—to stimulate all e-commerce, not just journalism—will require us to give up something dear to our rugged individualist American hearts: the illusion of Internet privacy.

NEXT WEEK: The solution.

Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

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