Why information should remain free, but I will stilll charge for my photography

Well, my last post caught the attention of Jörg Colberg over on his Conscientious blog and I have to say I took objection to a couple of angles he took in his post as I felt he had misunderstood what I wrote. Despite what Jörg wrote, I am fully in favour of people paying for content, but my argument was that charging people directly for accessing information through the Internet in the form of a paywall is something I do not agree with and it will not suddenly increase the funding of quality journalism - nor return it to the mythical age when journalism was well funded (which didn't ever really exist in the first place) - even if I think it will become more common. Therefore, if I want to continue to pursue photojournalism as a career then I cannot rely on the news organisations alone being the source of funding for me to do it, however they generate revenue. This would be true if the NY Times charged me $2 a day to read it online the same as they do in print.

However, Jörg tells me he was actually arguing in my favour and trying to state that the content producers should be getting more money for what they produce and therefore not have to rely on other sources of income - a point I couldn't agree with more! So it turns out that over the course of a few emails it came to pass that we actually agree on a number of points and I had misunderstood him as much as I thought he had misunderstood me. Blimey, what a lot of misunderstandings... In any case, the exchange did prompt me to think a little more about the issue of charging for online content.

I used to work in the post production industry. Most of what we did was advertising jobs. I like to think I developed some sort immunity to the effects of advertising (which probably is just the kind of self delusion advertisers prey upon) but I remember thinking and remarking to anyone who would listen that advertising would kill the Internet. Perhaps a little over dramatic, but then I'm given to hyperbole on occasion. However, what I really meant is that commercial interests will destroy the Internet and I still think this is true. For me, the Internet strength comes from the fact that anyone with a computer and a connection can access and contribute to a tremendous amount of information and debate. I'll only mention in passing that the big drawback of this is that many many people are excluded from that debate and denied that information precisely because they don't have the privilege of being able to access a computer and a connection. Not a small point, but I'll gloss over it for now.

One thing that has become apparent in the media industry is that by giving away their content online, they have shot themselves in the foot (financially speaking) by allowing people to read and view for free what they used to have to pay for by buying the paper or magazine. There is no doubt a general decline in sales and revenue across the board as more and more people access their information online. The biggest mistake I see though is when organisations try to translate the business model that worked for print to the web.

Last year, I wrote in a post that "It is my opinion that we users will need to pay for content online in some way shape or form. If this does not happen, then all our news will become 'infotainment' and advertisers will rule. Ever seen the film Idiocracy? That vision of the future looks very likely unless we realise that advertisers are not philanthropists and if we want to see and read quality content, and moreover if we want that quality content to be produced at all then we will have to pay for it. If we don't then others will pay for the content they want, and the real news will be buried further under advertisements for Victoria's Secret and the latest relationship woes of movie stars. I think the future of news and information will exist both online and in print. Daily, breaking news will be delivered online, as the medium is perfectly set up in order to deliver this information in away that can be constantly updated. More in-depth analysis will exist online but I see it being published in print on an infrequent basis. Perhaps some of it will only exist in print. It takes me all week to read the Sunday Times anyway. A good example of this already exists in the form of one of my favourite photography publications - FOTO8. Their magazine is published bi-annually while they're website is updated regularly with photo-stories, articles and blogs. They also have a physical presence in the form of a gallery and host talks and presentations. I don't know what their balance sheet looks like but in theory it looks good to me. I read online and I subscribe. Their content is something I want to see/read and as such they have my eyes and my money. And that is what any publisher is after; bottom line."

Given the above, it may seem strange that I advocate free access to content on the Internet, but in reality it is not so strange. Yes I think that all those who produce the content (which includes me) should get paid for doing so, so where should that money come from? The business model will have to change. I think this will be a huge problem for large corporations as I see the future of successful media outlets as being an interconnected series of 'boutique' operations, with smaller individual overheads, a dedicated and passionate cache of contributors and a variety of revenue streams that all flow together to fund the operation. This would require a restructuring of the company. The larger the company, the harder this is.

For a large newspaper for example, this may mean creating smaller newsrooms split up and independently operating, while all contributing to one aggregate site. These dedicated newsrooms would then engage with and source from the wider community of their readers through comments, blogs, links and social media - the web based 'cloud' that is such a hot topic right now. With online content accessible for free, the Internet based 'front page' would be the first place the news reader/consumer would go to find breaking news and links to the wider content of that organisation. The organisations edges would blur into the wider web in this way, as is quickly becoming the case now. Users could tailor the 'front page feed' to suit their interests or locale - this tailoring could even be a premium service the organisation could charge for, the content would be the same but for a few dollars more you could have it sifted and sorted for you according to your own criteria. A weekly print edition provides an overview of breaking news and in depth articles on important events or ongoing trends and offers an opportunity for those without a computer to access some of the information and for traditional designers to go to town with their craft. Anthologies of content on particular themes or by particular authors are published and sold. Events, talks and presentations are hosted and charged for. Services are offered, such as the travel section offering holiday packages though a partner organisation. If some of this sounds familiar, it's because it is already done. I just see it becoming a more prominent part of the way media organisations work and how they use that to generate money.

In his post, Jörg quite rightly points out that someone will have to pay, and - until the abolishment of money - I wholeheartedly agree. Though he is wrong about my own situation when he writes that; "In this case, it's Tom's wife bringing in the regular wage, thus - essentially - paying so that Tom can do his job." I have to say in my defense that I do earn enough money from my job to support myself, but currently only myself - what my wife's wage allows us to do is live in a decent sized house and have two wonderful kids and a family holiday a year - things I would not be able to do with my current earnings alone, and for which I am most grateful to my wife for that quality of life her hard earned wage provides. My aim is of course to increase my earnings so that I may better contribute to and improve upon the quality of life I enjoy. As I said to Jörg, based upon what I earned last year I could have survived but I would most likely have been only able to afford renting a room in a tiny shared apartment without a cable tv subscription and other such luxuries. He is absolutely right to point out to me that that should not be the case and that the work I do should earn me enough to have a good standard of living. Too true. Would I like to earn more? Sure I would, and I'm working on it believe me! I would have loved to have been able to spend ten times the amount I did on my kids christmas presents, so yes please, more money for what I do would be welcome.

As it stands though last year less than half my earnings came from freelance photojournalism. The rest came from teaching, private commissions and print sales. As I say, it didn't add up to a hell of a lot, but it was enough to survive and even fund some new equipment. But as I have pointed out, my situation is not unusual for photographers working in the fields of journalism and documentary. Many of us effectively live hand to mouth. The truth is though that my income will continue to come from various photographic practices and as I'm only (officially) 3 years into my career as a professional photographer I'm still finding out what these are.

So who should pay for the content? Well, one person who should pay is the one who is reading and consuming. I do think that ultimately a lot of this will be done indirectly as it were, with the consumer paying for products, specialised content and services they can access via the free portal of the web. For example, if I can read an article by a journalist for free, and I am interested in what they write and want to know more, I might wish to purchase an anthology by that author available to buy through a link by the article. A journalist may wish to only release certain content through a print medium, thus creating a source of income that way - similar to the way musicians might offer a download version of their album but then have a higher priced special edition with fancy packaging for those who wish to buy into that. I certainly hope this will be the case, as otherwise someone like me, who is interested in thoughtful, reasoned, informed and in depth information, but has very shallow pockets is going to be out priced in my ability to fund the content I want by the advertisers who want me to watch American Idol, drink coke and buy a new car. Which, in fact, may well happen anyway.

This is my fear; that charging people for access to Internet hosted content will actually close down debate, reduce the flow of information and take the best thing about the Internet and destroy it. The free access to information, and the ability to freely share it is such an amazing concept that to ruin it for the sake of a profit margin seems insane to me. We have to stop trying to put a monetary value on everything we do and find another way to quantify the value of things (believe it or not there are other options but I won't start with that now...)

I believe that instead of worrying how much to charge for online content, we should be celebrating the ushering in of a new age where we participate in a truly global community and that we can share and learn with people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures to our own, where people produce content they truly care about and have a stake in beyond the reward of a pay cheque. The potential to unite and solve problems is greater than ever and if we reduce this flow of information to the status of commerce, we are doing no less than taking an backward step in the evolution of our consciousness that will take generations to undo.

See, I told you I was given to hyperbole.

Anyway, take this blog for example. Nobody pays me to do it. It takes up a good deal of free time I could be using to do something else (like earn money) and the benefits of doing it are so hard to quantify that it often seems to make no sense why I should even engage in the activity at all. But that is not why I do it. For me, it is like a notebook, but instead of being one that contains information I keep to myself or can pass around and share with a few friends, it is one that potentially anyone can read, add to and comment upon. Is that of benefit to me? Without a doubt. Is it worthwhile to anyone else? Maybe, maybe not. I hope so. In the near impossible scenario of someone sending me a thank you note and a cheque for a $1000 because they enjoyed or appreciated something I put on here am I going to send it back? Hell no, but I would never charge you to read it up front. If you like this is one of the areas where I choose to give away content for free in the form of my thoughts and opinions on photography related matters.

My photography itself is a different matter. I do it because I love it first and foremost. It is a skill I have worked at, studied, practiced. My cameras cost money. My studies cost money. You can see a number of my pictures for free, because I post them on a blog and I have a website (in need of an update). But, if you want me to produce a print of one of my pictures, that is a product that I am not willing to give away for free. If you want me to take pictures of a particular subject or event, that - for the same reasons - will cost you. If you want me to teach and train you, that'll cost you. Unfortunately I live in a capitalist society. Photography is what I am selling, it is my products and services. At a certain level I will give it away (low res versions hosted on my blog, charity causes and occasionally for other various reasons). But, if the only way you could consume my photographs was for free on the Internet, I'd either think about charging for access (which I object to) or I'd have to rethink the way I earn money.

Because I want to keep putting my work on my blog (and will eventually get round to updating my website) so you can see it without paying, then guess what I'm trying to do. If I want to continue the journalism aspect of my photography, and get paid by an organisation for them to use and distribute that work, then I am hoping that they too will come up with a way of funding such content while still keeping the access to information online free. In fact, I know that that is in the central point around which the whole debate hinges.

The truth is that there will be no one size fits all solution and that a variety of evolving measures will have to be implemented depending on the circumstances, and that is why the answer to the questions of who should pay, for what and how much are so difficult to answer in a general way and why most of the debate throws up more definite arguments and opinions about what should not, rather than what should be charged for.

Well, this post has gone on for long enough, but I'm sure it's not the last I will write on the matter. I'll close with a link emailed to me by Jörg (which I never did thank him for so - thanks Jörg!). It is for the Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab blog. I had never seen it before and it is excellent. The particular post he pointed me to is this one which in turn led me to enough reading material to keep me occupied for a long time. And none of it I had to pay for. Well, directly at least.

No comments: