Why free information can't be a good business (and probably shouldn't)

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This is probably not a very new thought but recently I read this very interesting article about the print media and the internet. Actually this short article made me read longer ones and got me thinking.

For me the idea of the internet was always connected with the idea to provide knowledge and data to whomever needs it. At no cost. Really, that’s how we got to know the internet back in 1997 when we accessed it from school:
We would open Yahoo or Altavista, wait for a few minutes, then enter some search words and after a few more minutes, we would be presented with web pages containing information, sometimes even those we were looking for. We never paid for the knowledge, the school just paid for the connection and the hardware. Anything else, well, most of anything else was freely available (as in free beer). Search engines earned money through advertisement -as they still do- but mostly the information providers were big media companies that already had the information they published and they had already financed it by selling analog media products. They just put it on the net as an unimportant additional income.

Then there was this hype (actually, there were two with a large breakdown in between) when suddenly smart people thought not being on the internet is like totally uncool and will probably hurt business so they got on the internet as quickly as possible. They provided their information for free (with ads) trying to catch customers for their ‘real’ products. We do see that in Germany: The top websites -search engines and services like amazon or ebay taken aside, which don’t publish original information- usually are portals by big media companies like Spiegel Online, Bild Online, StudiVZ (the german facebook owned by a huge publishing house), T-Online, gmx.de, web.de (big internet service providers) aso. The only exception is Wikipedia, which is famous for being financed through donations.

So, there is only one website among the 25 top websites in Germany that provides original information and is not connected to existing traditional companies that earn money from other sources. And this one doesn’t actually get paid for its content.

That may mean nothing but my guess is that most of the original information providers could not be supported just by the money earned through advertising and services offered online. They are dependent on the companies behind them to a certain extend and my guess is they will always be. Because paid content is not what the internet is all about. Imho.

Now this article I mentioned describes the example of the TriCityNews, a small local newspaper run by people who actually get it right: “I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?” The article also says that paid subscribtions to information on the web will become popular. I don’t think so because we’re already seeing new information networks like blogs, social networks and aggregators of those evolve that might at one point become as important and reliable as what we call the press nowadays. I might not need to have a look at the daily newspaper for regional news in the future but could easily find bloggers in my region and have a smart search engine compile a daily (or hourly) list of news published by them. I don’t say this will be replacing the traditional media but those new networks will probably also not depend on them anymore. Actually I hope so because that would be a great improvement to a society that becomes more and more focused on information as its primary resource.

Anybody agreeing? Or not?

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