Free or paid content: what is the real issue?

The Internet has accustomed us to (almost) everything being free, and a massive movement to make more content available for a fee is worrying users who see it as the arrival of a two-tiered web that discriminates against them. But the main stake of the abandonment of free access is not a certain form of equality in the access to information but rather a generalized exposure to disinformation for some.

Towards a 100% paid web?

Let’s first ask ourselves why the issue seems to be resurfacing all of a sudden. The answer is simple: the impact of the new personal data regulations on the business models of online media.

There are no miracles: a media company has to make money and to do so it has two possibilities. Either it charges for access to its content or it asks its audience for a non-financial participation that it can monetize with other players.

In other words: either you pay to access content or access is free but in this case the media captures and monetizes your personal data in one form or another. This is often summarized as “if it’s free, you are the product”.

Without going into details, the new rules on data protection and the way some big players like Apple or Google (among others) are appropriating them make it more and more difficult for publishers to monetize their audience. Hence the fear (justified or not) of many to see a paying model of access to content become widespread.

An ideal world: the free web for all

The web was therefore born free by definition and this freedom of access to information for all is part of its founding principles. It represents in a way an ideal world where access to knowledge is general and free.

But in fact the web has known private spaces (paying or not) since the first days. Sorry for the general access. Then paid spaces became the norm, whether you pay with money or with data. Sorry for the free access.

But with these few nuances, the early web was still close to this ideal conception of a world of knowledge and connected people.

Free of charge makes us forget the value

From the moment when everything or almost everything is free, we forget a fundamental aspect of the problem: what is the value of the information to which we have access?

By the way I chose to use the word value, others would certainly have preferred quality, I have no preference.

By value I don’t mean monetary value but intrinsic value. I think about what the information brings to the person, does it answer a question, a problem, and in a certain way enriches the knowledge of the person who has access to it.

When everything is free we have uniform access to information whose value can go from very high to very low. This poses absolutely no problem to the reader who only has to sort it out, knowing that the information costs him nothing…except maybe the time needed to sort out the good from the bad.

We start talking about value when the paid model starts to spread.

A logical world: the correlation between price and value

As soon as something is paid for, the question arises as to whether it is worth the price paid.

The reader/consumer being a rational person, he will not pay to have access to something he can access for free. And the price he will be willing to pay will logically vary with the value he gives to the information.

It is therefore logical that we have seen the generalization of a model where simple, non-value-added, non-exclusive information was accessible to all, and where more exclusive, elaborate information that required a greater production effort was paid for. The two models can coexist in the same media, one serving as a loss leader to sell the other.

C’est une approche somme toute logique que personne, à ma connaissance, ne pense à remettre en cause tellement elle semble naturelle :

  • It’s free: you pay with your data and you have a low to medium value.
  • It’s paid: you pay with your wallet and you have a medium to high value.

Of course there may be “hybrid” cases but they do not survive for long and the rules of the market bring them to reason.

  • Low value paid with money: the customer will not pay for long
  • Paid with money but abundance of advertising and doubt on the use of data: trust problem, the customer is at risk.
  • High value paid with data only: the media will eventually realize that it is giving jam to pigs and that it has everything to gain by better segmenting its offer.

An improbable world: all-paying

With the announced difficulty of monetizing readers’ personal data, the question arises of the survival of a free model in favor of an all-pay model.

It is technically possible but highly unlikely.

There is a category of content that by its nature or its value will not interest anyone in a paid offer. So either they will disappear or will continue to exist but will be more difficult to monetize.

There is a category of content that by its nature or its value will not interest anyone in a paid offer. So either they will disappear or will continue to exist but will be more difficult to monetize.

The transition to an all-pay model is more of a problem for publishers because no one is willing to pay for part of the offer and the question of its sustainability will arise if it can no longer be monetized enough in a free model.

But this configuration is, I remind again, highly improbable.

However, it has caused two types of reaction if I am to believe what I have read/heard from my network:

  • It is the end of free information: as I said, it is highly unlikely
  • There will be a divide between an elite that can pay and those who can’t and will have access to lower quality information: this is already the case, isn’t it? And then less than 10€ per month for the digital version of Le Monde, I don’t think that reserves access to quality content to an “elite”.

But these concerns based on the price to be paid that would create a breach of equality in access to valuable content distracts from what I think should be the real concern today. I am talking about free access to negative value content.

Negative value content: a true social issue

Indeed, all the reflections exposed above are based on one principle: any content, any information, has a value that goes from low to high but that is always positive.

Whatever we read enriches us: sometimes very little, sometimes a lot. But we never lose by exposing ourselves to information. Never? Are you so sure?

What worries me personally the most is not that a shift to a predominantly paid model creates a kind of equality gap in access to knowledge or quality information, but that it leaves a whole part of the population exposed mainly to negative value content.

When I talk about content with negative value, I’m not talking about content that enriches the person a little or a lot, but content that misleads him, misinforms him, makes him regress. No need to say more, I think you are all familiar with the subject of fake news. But between those who don’t know how to separate the wheat from the chaff and those who believe in it or want to believe in it, we can’t pretend that the subject doesn’t exist.

The Catastrophic World: free access only for negative value content

The real problem of a majority switch to paying is therefore not the disappearance of a free offer but that this free offer becomes almost entirely negative. If we already feel the impact of fake news today, then we would be moving into a really dangerous configuration.

The real problem is not so much paying for quality but the fact that by not paying you don’t even get a lower quality but you get a negative value!

Oh yes…there could be worse. Charging for information with negative value to make it credible. Then we would have lost everything. But are we that far from it?

Image : Free conten,t by via shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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