I was reading an incredibly complacent interview with Alan Rushbridger, the Guardians editor. There was a hint - indeed the very faintest of hints - that the newspaper's on-line business model might not be a sturdy cash generator:
I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s better if you embed yourself in this new world of information and work out what it is what we can do that they can’t do and vice versa. If at some point in the future it looks as though some form of payment is going to work, we’re not going to set ourselves against it
And here lies the rub, not just for the Guardian but for much of the 'world wide web' - Rushbridger touched on it by saying:
There would have been no point in 1997 or 2000 saying that we don’t like the idea of this all being free...
At which point I recalled some sage words from a real life mail order guru - my former colleague John Hinchcliffe. We were discussing the strategy (or rather John was discussing and I was doing what might be called 'intelligent listening') options faced by the Freeman's brand following its acquisition by (I think) Littlewoods. Now Freeman's were the only big book mail order company that didn't give new agents a (significant) free gift with their first order and John was considering whether to bring the brand in line with the main Littlewoods brand. This brought the observation:
Once you start giving away free gifts you can't stop
The Internet wasn't listening to John (perhaps it should have been) but this is precisely the problem that we face - not just news providers but social media platforms, music sellers, book retailers and any number of folk supplying software stuff. We gave stuff away for free. As Rushbridger argues (somehow I suspect this is more post hoc rationalisation than the honest truth) this was about embedding yourself in the wonders of the on-line world.
However, it was still giving stuff away for free. And we now have a generation of web wanderers who assume that it's all free and that this is the right way for it to be. Weaning them off that free stuff (especially when so many bely their degree level qualifications and actually believe it is free) is a massive challenge.
John was right. Giving away free stuff was always risky and the Internet is about to discover this truth!