Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Distribution is where the money lies

I touched on this subject here, where the thesis was pragmatism.

The Guardian now trashes all options which involve paid content models in a gloomy picture of the future of online newspaper publishing, and, perhaps in a rather excluding way, by extension the whole issue of journalism itself. There are other options, however; and it seems to me that the Guardian's article misses the point.

Distribution was always the key to making money in publishing - always will be. In a world where the content is neither printed nor physically moved from one place to another but replicates itself as if by magic through downloads that allow access from virtually anywhere to virtually anywhere, there will always be money to be made somewhere along the process. It just so happens that this place will shift from time to time, as technology evolves, as consumer habits change, as the hierarchy between consumers and producers modulates. Amazon's Kindle shows us that the wonder of sitting in a neighbourhood coffee bar and downloading - on impulse - a book you'd really love to get your hands on actually works. Translate this opportunistic way of purchasing content to the field of newspapers and I'm sure we'd see an about-face in the world of journalism.

I'm paying not for the content itself but for the communication channel that allows me to access it. That's the mad thing about this. We perceive an added value we are prepared to pay for in a multi-product provider like Sky or the phone operators; an added value we no longer perceive in the content itself that they piggyback off. I'm happily paying £20 a month for 600 minutes and free Internet on my mobile. I know plenty of people who pay £40 or more for their cable and satellite television.

These days we're absolutely used to paying for the access; we're not looking any more to pay for the films or articles themselves.

So it all depends on how you bill it. Bill your online subscription to all the major newspapers as part of your Internet deal and no one will notice the difference. The papers will then have a business to business relationship with their distributors. Direct customers will be kept at an arm's length.

It has to be in the interest of the service providers to keep the content providers on their feet - without decent content, people will simply move on to other, greener, pastures.

If people get greedy, if the distributors insist on taking a greater percentage of the (now available) cake than is their due, which is what is happening at the moment (all that money flooding into the coffers of the ISPs, all that money flooding out of the war chests of the big newspaper and magazine publishers), the authors and editors will simply disappear.

This relationship, often hard-nosed and bordering on the pig-headed, has been true of publishing throughout its history.

It's not going to change now, not even in a digital world.

Digital worlds, for all their differences, are still analogous worlds - even where they are not analogical.
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Further reading: more on the subject of going digital

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