Why information should remain free

The internet is a means to distribute information. Many people often confuse distribution with content. This may have something to do with the philosophical aspects of media criticism with many using Marshall McLuhan's 'The medium is the message' mantra. No doubt McLuhan's excellent book, a copy of which sits on my shelf while quotes from it are seared into my brain, is a masterful piece of critical thinking, but it also serves to add to the confusion that content and the means of communicating that content are the same thing. They are not. What McLuhan meant is that the medium is a message; the re-imagining of the way we view the world of information. Content and message are intertwined of course, but they are different entities. Think of the old line: 'Don't shoot the messenger!'

Following on from this, David Campbell recently wrote part 5 of his 'Revolutions in the media economy' entitled 'The pay wall folly for photographers', where he eloquently argues the point (again) that journalism has never been funded by media revenue to the degree that many who talk about some mythical golden age of journalism seem to think.

He notes - importantly - that newspapers have never charged for content per se but instead for the paper and ink. This is backed up by the fact that the lion's share of a newspaper's costs goes to printing and distribution. This is where most of the money goes. Not to the journalists, who have always - in the main - worked long hours for low pay. If I work out my hourly pay for a freelance photography job, it is usually pretty shocking (so I don't do it unless I feel like scaring myself into chasing more work...) and as I freelancer, I have to provide my own (expensive) equipment.

It is my personal belief that media organisations will charge for accessing content. Some already do and others are in the process of putting a paywall in place. Whether this will work as a long term strategy or not, I am skeptical. I think this is because they have looked and failed to come up with a strategy for making money for themselves by using the internet. The point is that the cost of distribution using the internet is so much lower than the cost of printing and distributing a physical copy that it is difficult to justify the charge, and that is how many consumers see it. Personally, I long for a future where information is freely available, knowledge is freely shared, money is obselete and we all live in peace and harmony. But then I would probably only use my camera to record memories and take up farming or something instead.

But I digress. Is it doom and gloom for photographers and journalists? Not at all. As the internet has exploded and evolved I have come across so much more work than I would have in the past. I still buy newspapers, magazines and journals because I find them useful as objects. I like them. I can carry them about easier than a laptop sometimes. I hate reading stuff on a handheld (but I do that too sometimes). A lot of them I discovered through the internet. Indeed, many I buy over the internet. And here is the key for me. The internet is a great tool for the distribution of content, but it is also a potential market place for goods. The buying and selling of goods and services is what generates revenue. To argue that journalism is a service is one thing, but you are not going to convince many wallets to open with that argument.

David Campbell writes: "The successful visual journalist in the new media economy is therefore going to be someone who embraces the logic of the web’s ecology, using the ease of publication, distribution and circulation to construct and connect with a community of interest around their projects and their practice. Like the media players beginning to understand that developing and engaging a loyal community is more valuable than chasing a mass audience (while being open so those passers-by can become associates), photographers need to do the same. If people now understand they are publishers as well as producers this puts them in a new and potentially powerful position."

He also links to this interesting article by Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google Inc. He argues quite well on the point that the free nature of accessing information on the internet is a benefit, not a drawback. He writes: "The flow of accurate information, diverse views and proper analysis is critical for a functioning democracy. We also acknowledge that it has been difficult for newspapers to make money from their online content. But just as there is no single cause of the industry's current problems, there is no single solution. We want to work with publishers to help them build bigger audiences, better engage readers, and make more money.

Meeting that challenge will mean using technology to develop new ways to reach readers and keep them engaged for longer, as well as new ways to raise revenue combining free and paid access. I believe it also requires a change of tone in the debate, a recognition that we all have to work together to fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age."

I currently have a freelance contract with one newspaper, which impresses people who are not in the industry. If I did a job for them every day, then I might be on a livable wage, but I don't. In fact, at the time of writing I haven't worked for them for over a month. Last year I made money from freelance journalism, teaching, print sales and private commissions. It wasn't a lot, but this is my future and is probably the future for many in my field. The internet will help me distribute my work, but it is not in itself going to pay my bills or put my kids through college. I am lucky that my wife brings in a regular wage from her day job which allows me to have a family in the first place and not worry if next month's work is going to pay the rent or not. If I am going to survive and thrive, I have to understand how the internet can work for me. If newspapers charge a subscription fee for online news, I may well be one of the ones who pays it, but I am under no illusion that that business model is going to increase my revenue or even save my freelance career.


Julie said...

You might like this article:


It covers the same issues from the perspective of the music industry; I found a lot of parallels in your thoughts and his.

Tom White said...

Thanks Julie. In fact, I was just listening to a radio show (free music) and heard a track I really liked so I googled it, which brought up a dozen links to free MP3 downloads of the track, so downloaded it and then went to an online record store to see if I could get a vinyl copy (call me a fool but I have my reasons) which I could, and which I bought... So there you go. Free makes money.

Anonymous said...


I think Campbell's point that you bring to bear in this article is an important one. The photography community often looks back with nostalgia upon eras that never existed, but have been constructed over time.

I suspect many photographers from history we respect highly had long periods of scant financial reward, but it always seems we want to talk about the privileges of photography instead of the realities ... Eggleston's financial freedom being the first example off everyone's lips.

Best, Pete

Tom White said...

This is true, many photographers had/still do have other sources of income than their photography, whether that is family, savings from a previous career or an alternative and concurrent revenue stream...