Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

If journalists don’t start valuing their work who else will?

James York is the co-founder of the content app, Knitd. com,  an HTML5 consumer app through which content makers can self publish, and even monetise, their stories through a twitter-like stream

I’ve worked in two tough sectors, both affected by the digital age. Besides media, I’ve been involved with insurance. A product that no one (really) likes and which is only ever useful when something fairly terrible happens.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been fascinated by media. Content is a product everyone wants – both consumer and even business. It can add value, inspire or humbly share in the bad news. Print isn’t dead and digital isn’t yet the panacea. Professional journalism in its many guises remains the special force of modern media.

Trouble is, since I’ve worked with this product, content hasn’t really had any consumer price tags making it unique to the capitalist world: Highly elastic demand, virtually unlimited ‘free’ supply.

If you’re in the business of content, you should be delighted.

Never has so much opportunity existed. But there’s a colossal elephant in the room with tusks tearing holes in prospects, budgets and balance sheets. It’s the digital zeitgeis: “Nobody pays for content anymore.”

Obviously, one cannot deny that this is a truism for consumers. But sense would suggest it’s also a matter of semantics, equally: Nobody is selling content. And more specifically: The people that are buying content are not passing on the cost to consumers.

In spite of the destructive and distorting effect of this culture, a price market for content still exists behind the digital line presented to consumers. It mostly stops there.

As a buyer of hundreds of thousands of words, I’ve only once negotiated with a journalist that requested retention of their IP – specifically for resale. That savvy writer admitted that they would accept less to sell it to other commissioners soon after.

This content game still resembles a team-building exercise gone wrong – to be one of the last brands standing. There are doubtless myriad digital news and free print success stories.

Of course, free content is part of a consumer’s new digital diet or all they’ve ever known. But to suggest its existence was intrinsically demand-led is either defeatist or blinkered. And as Warren Buffet observes, I paraphrase: “If you don’t know who the patsy is, you are the patsy”.

Who’d run a coffee shop, giving away a Grande, hoping people look at the ads while they drink? Coffee growers might be alarmed all their hard work wasn’t being properly valued to consumers. It might affect their wholesale price. Sound familiar?

Shouldn’t you do something – you still charge for your product? I say take more control, help define value, for your own sake. Be an objective coffee grower and not a consumer, Googler or Facebooker.

Fortunately, there’s a case study for successfully selling digital content. Books are priced and distributed in vast numbers through digital – largely thanks to Jeff Bezos’ foresight/genius/ambition at Amazon.

Is your professional content that poor it’s worth nothing? Of course not. You charge for it. And several prominent journalism brands respect their value chain and run successful digital subscriptions too – you can probably name them.

If journalists were empowered directly with consumers, creating a new market, it may take the price problem away from the publisher and offer a path to value resolution.l

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