When Media Content is Free, It’s Worth Every Cent

This is the first of a three-part series.

August J. Pollak was thrilled when the Huffington Post asked him to blog for them. Joining the widely-read liberal website was a great break, thought the astute political cartoonist/blogger whose work appears at the perfectly-named “Some Guy with a Website.” 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 1600 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 word 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 U.S. 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.'” Moving and packaging information pays. Producing it does not.

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 creative 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. (When, they don’t say. From whom, they know not.) 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. No one worth paying attention to, anyway.

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. Back to work!

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 (charge as much as the market will bear, stupid!) 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 has 1300 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, remain, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future, 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. Yet newspapers are eviscerating print operations to invest in an online presence without a discernible fiscal future.

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 possible-maybe-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. Some print venues offer no payment at all.

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 found the essay online, for free. Sorry, Dan.)

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 [computer scientists] 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.


27 Responses to “”

  1. Jen Sorensen Says:

    Great column, Ted. I’ve had similar misgivings about HuffPo.

  2. gypc_dave Says:

    “There ain’t no money in poetry
    That’s what sets the poet free
    And I’ve had all the freedom I can stand …” — Guy Clark

    Personally, I like watching the movie, publishing, and music “bidnesses” collapsing under the weight of poor decisions by suits who don’t get it. Gutenberg’s press cost a lot of monks their jobs illuminating manuscripts; HTML will cost a lot of other cloistered doofuses who never did anything original their jobs, too. So Britney Spears won’t be able to make a living without the suits? No worries – I expect live music in small local venues to make a major comeback, once all these mass-market recordings dry up. Nora Jones will manage, and so will all those folks who only have talent, instead of good looks. Hell, I might even get back into playing for audiences again.

    Find your market, Ted. Maybe it will be through subscriptions, or maybe it will maybe through some other means, but the paradigm is shifting. It’s time for those who pride themselves on their creativity to find creative ways to keep the larder full and the mortgage paid.

  3. madziarczyk Says:

    I agree whole heartedly. The truth, or at least part of the truth, is that bloggers are seen by media companies as hot ticket idiots who gain a lot of publicity through their readership. They generate a lot of sound and fury in their world, attracting readers, who are then geared up to see other content offered on things like the Huffington Post.

    The blogosphere, especially the progressive blogosphere typified by the sort of round robin of sites that include Pandagon and Majikthise, is like a group cheerleading session. Everyone thinks that everyone else is great, they get readers, and eventually they get some sort of notice from blog friendly sites or media–but the reason they usually get the attention is because people are already reading them and are likely to jump on products if they’re associated with them, not because their quality is all that good.

    That’s why I stay out of that particular circle jerk of self congratulation and have my website read by others.

  4. Matt Bors Says:

    great column…looking forward to the rest of the series.

    At least the Drudge Report doesn’t have the audacity to have unpaid contributors–it just links to ten thousand sites.

  5. Gwynne Says:

    Speaking of ‘the media,’ George W. Bush looks pathetic doing his impersonation of Jimmy Carter between an Israeli and Palestinian leader. An aloe plant has character. I know an aloe plant. George W. Bush has no character.

  6. Mikhaela Says:

    So, so true. The hypocrisy of progressive outlets refusing to pay contributors but happily paying for everything else…

  7. Doug Robertson Says:

    They get away with it because, well, they can. They may be stuffing their coffers with millions of dollars, but gone are they days when they actually have to pay their content providers. There are plenty of writers who would simply be slap-happy to have their piece read on some uber-popular site like HuffPo. Keeping their fingers crossed that someone might, perchance, be so impressed with their literary skill or insightful perspective that a paycheck may soon follow. Checking the email inbox for the offers to begin pouring in … let the negotiations begin! I would recommend some sort of blogger boycot uprising except that, of course, we’d all love to have a piece on HuffPo, et al.

  8. Owen Says:

    We all have the responsibility to be well informed citizens. The internet should be a virtual bottomless pit of information knowledge. Unfortunately the internet is also a haven for “bloggers” who will write about anyone and anything with little or no accountability to go along with it, and too many people who browse the internet looking for a scoop. They read some random person’s “blog” which has no citations or supporting information, and all of the sudden the reader thinks it’s gospel.

  9. MoeLarryAndJesus Says:

    Right, Owen. Unlike you – you just think anything Lou Dobbs says about immigration is gospel. Or some drunk at your local bar who bitches about “dem dat won’t learn the English.”

  10. angelo Says:

    Okay, so from the bottom, content providers are being squeezed by slave labor. But what about the squeeze from the top? I think Ted was onto something when in earlier columns, he attacked people who consistently get the facts wrong. We need to find a way to more brutally attack these people, with a view to making more room for hard-working replacements.
    I prefer to look at media content like food. A few years back, the Los Angeles Health Department started posting letter grades on restaurants. It totally worked. People got fired, dirty managers got fired, clean managers got hired. No one had to work for free. Here’s a way to do it for TV and print media individuals and entities:

    1) Global, academic/epistemic community assigns letter grades for overall fact presentation (lower percentages should yield profoundly lower grades 80%=D, etc.)
    2) Random, periodic focus groups consisting of an accurate sample of voting Americans will be assembled. They will be fed purportedly factual content. Their impression of the presentation will be compared against reality. Another letter grade will be assigned.
    4) Results are published quarterly along with standards used as well as all supporting data. The ‘impression grade’ shall carry twice the weight in the computed average.
    5) In the case of networks, the grades are posted on the lower right hand of the screen during any segment that gives the impression of being remotely factual to average viewers. A similar system can be imagined for any form of print or net media.
    In the case of individual anchors and commentators on TV, the grade is attached to their clothing as well as the chyron indicating name. In print the grade is simply posted on all pieces.
    The grades are color coded as such:
    It is an amalgam of Wikipedia, Media Matters, MPAA and the highly successful California Health Department Grading System.

    get rid of the fools at the top, and then you can have their job and hire the slaves for pay!

  11. ellwort Says:

    Idiot Capitalism
    Yes, In the rush to mediocrity (in this reign of “mediacracy”?), the trajectory toward dumbest is disturbing. But, given the tiny funnel which young creative artists have had to confront in the existing corporate marketing rackets, don’t you think the term “deprofessionalization” is a bit elitist?
    Gypc_Dave has is about right. But when the Guttenberg press effectively sacrificed the production, for posterity, of beautiful hand-illuminated manuscripts, the world got Chaucer – right in his own time AND for keeps. Sorry, Ted. Your bank account may be a sacrificial lamb. In another fable-metaphor, corporate content-packagers are idiots when they kill the golden goose, as they do when they make it unsustainable for anyone to provide the substance the idiots are in the business of packaging. WIthout content, they have nothing to sell but an empty, worthless package.
    Can’t wait to see the solution next week. Do you suppose it involves taking control of the means of production, as some recording artists did in the 70’s and 80’s?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    I can’t get excited. When I bite the bullet, decide to install a huge time sink, and start up my own blog, THEN I’ll get excited.

    –W.M. Bear

  13. Anonymous Says:

    I am the owner of a content based website. (just so you know I’m not writing to pimp my site, I won’t even mention the name!) I placed an ad to hire writers paying them $100/article, expecting to get replies from journalism majors looking for pizza money. Instead, I got over 500 replies in a matter of hours, some from well known published authors and internationally known bloggers! A lot of people asked “Are you for REAL?” I had no CLUE the quality of writing you could get just by paying, what I thought was a small amount of money. Maybe I’m a bad businesman, but I’d rather burn through our 100K of available capital paying great writers for great writing rather than begging for something for free. In addition we’ve purchased thousands of dollars worth of photos from major online photo-vendors, not only to support the photographers, but to be kosher/legal when it comes to copyrighted images. I’m very interested in reading Ted’s next article on the “Solution”!

  14. angelo Says:

    Don’t forget that one of the unfortunate side-effects of the Gutenberg press was that fake versions of the bible were widely distributed. Christianity still suffers an identity crisis precipitated from this era.
    Gutenberg presses increased circulation from 0% to 100%. Can the same be said of the net? Doubt it.

    Dave, I suspect Ted is not as worried about himself as he is worried about honest, relevant content providers in general.
    I totally agree on the small venue thing, but I’m not sure facts can readily remain facts in small venues, as it were. Small venue success springs from individual taste. Do we want factual content to be contingent upon individual taste? Imagine being able to get only the news that does not bother you.
    as much as I like Europe, I’m not sure I want our print media to become as small-market oriented as theirs, though geography probably mitigates this possibility , somewhat.

    It looks as if there is a fundamental conflict between a content provider’s ability to be profitable and their ability to leave an impression that is consistent with reality.

  15. Owen Says:


    How old are you? You seem very immature and bitter. Grow up.

  16. a.k.a.kadavul Says:

    Have you looked at commercial free radio models?

    Yes, they do not pay as much as commercial channels. In fact many hosts are “volunteers”. Pacifica may have/pay less money than NPR-PBS, but it surivives.

  17. Kurt Says:

    I have to disagree about the small venues and live music. I manage several bands that play around the San Francisco Bay Area. I get paid about $.02 an hour for the work that I do, and sometimes I actually loose money. I book and promote a side project of Counting Crows called Glider ( I did two shows with them and 2 other amazing musicians from the Bay Area. People just don’t do the small venue live music like they used to. We didn’t sell out either show and we should have sold out both. We got lots of good press in several papers, including a critics recommendation that the show we did in Berkeley was the #1 must see show that night in the Bay Area. Just over 90 people showed up, and it was only $10 a ticket.

    I also have been trying to start up a record label that actually gets some money back to the artists via electronic distribution. iTunes and Snowcap have that business so locked down that it is nearly impossible to get the musicians a fair cut of their work.

    Anyway, Ted, I agree with you. Too bad you couldn’t make the Glider show at Hotel Utah last January. It was a barn burner!

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Not to be a hater, but although I’ve enjoyed some of Ted’s weekly blog entries, these last two just make him out to be a… well, to be blunt, whacko.

    Seems to me that in the previous blog, contrary to what Ted claims as fact, numerous recounts have shown Bush to have won the Florida election.

    And in this latest, Ted seems to be favoring the very capitalistic model he has railed against in previous blogs.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Bush supporter by any stretch of the imagination (voted for him in ’00 but just couldn’t do it in ’04). The Patriot Act is one of the worst pieces of legislation to come out of our broken Congress in decades, if not ever. Secret arrests, trials etc. are the hallmarks of a police state, not a Constitutional Republic.

    But Ted is coming off as just insane. I hope he comes out of it and gets back on track soon.

  19. ellwort Says:

    Angelo said, “I’m not sure facts can readily remain facts in small venues, as it were. Small venue success springs from individual taste. Do we want factual content to be contingent upon individual taste? Imagine being able to get only the news that does not bother you.”
    Sounds like Fox news. Which manages to squeak by in that other medium.
    Oh, hey. Which real is this?

  20. angelo Says:

    anatomy of a lame comment:

    1)separate yourself from Bush
    2)talk about the author, and how the article makes him look.
    3)indicate that you don’t agree, but don’t say why.
    4)Don’t even mention the matter of the article you are commenting about.
    5)come of as a complete tool in the process.
    6)waste everyones time.

    7)check back to see if anyone’s outraged.
    8)try to parlay it into hits on your website or change the subject to Ron Paul

  21. angelo Says:

    okay, kurt. But imagine a completely decimated record industry in 30 years. No big stars. No wide exposure…
    nevermind. Though I will say this:
    cover bands in LA get paid bucks. Their money comes straight from the bar, usually.
    Original bands who can bring 40 people to a show usually only can get a couple hundred per show.
    The saddest thing are the rappers on Hollywood blvd trying to trick you into buying their CD.

    So, what is the cartooning equivalent to a cover band?

  22. ChrisGR Says:

    So? A major newspaper is a business that expects to gain profit from its sales and some ads? Or is it about influence on as many people as possible, on behalf of the parent company and the interests it serves?

    If it is the first then you are right, there is a problem.

    If it is about the second, then milions of readers (even for free) is always better than thousands of paying ones. In that context, it is simply, “the less it costs, the better”.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Why don’t you writers get toghether and slaughter the CEO’s before they slit your throats and replace you with true hacks, rather than shouting for money from the people that support you? America still has a few laws on the books against “Monopoly” and “Unfair competitive practices”. A combination Journalist strike along with “Charter Revokal” lawsuits will send them to hell in a handbasket. Bite deep, draw blood, name names. Give “Polite messages of friendship” to stockholders, pigs that feed off usury, so they feel their money less secure. And I don’t mean a ‘class action lawsuit’ for a charter revokal. I mean, have a dozen writers per major city pool some money toghether and get an attorney and seriously go for charter revokal against the major media corporations. TV, Newspapers, Radio… They own far too much and use that to wedge out any chance of competition. It would be nice to see the rich suffer also in the next great depression that they are creating.

  24. benjamin melançon Says:

    I think markets can help run a sane economy– can be part of more liberty, more justice, and better lives. If, that is, things start out fairly with relative equality of wealth. But many people, with good reason, consider market-anything discredited by neoliberal disasters worldwide. Many, many people in the U.S. will flat-out say there ought to be caps on CEO income and the like– a distinctly command-and-control approach. So it’s strange to me that I’m raising this point:

    Market economics has nothing useful to say about idea or thought-work. If it can be replicated infinitely at no cost, there is no scarcity. So the only question is how to reward creative producers- ideally without artificially restricting society’s benefit from their work.

    This situation seems tailor-made for democratic socialism, or any form of group decision-making about whom to remunerate and how.

    Has anyone said this? Anywhere? Figured out how it could actually be done? Let me know.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    maybe it should be seen like musicians see it all? that touring and other things are where the money is, and everything else is just promotion and marketing?

    so, for you, it’d be books, posters, prints, original artwork, etc, that would bring in the money–or something like that. You’re already paid once or more for syndication rights in print/online, and then you post your things online for free anyway, no? you can’t expect money for what you yourself give to us for free, no?

  26. bob Says:

    It sounds like Ted read Andrew Keen’s book “the Cult of the Amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture”

    It’s more about the dumbing down of society, and the degradation of Art and Writing and Whatnot because (1) no one is paying for it, and (2) anyone can do it, instead of paying dues and earning it in a meritocracy.

    I’m reminded how right he is whenever i read David Halberstam or George Will or Malcolm Gladwell – true wordsmiths, not just people who wrote an essay and revised it a couple times for polish.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    I have to disagree on this one. Charging means fewer readers, fewer readers means more stupid people voting republican.

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