Steve Yelvington has a great phrase for the oft-repeated claim that newspapers ‘sowed the seeds of their own demise’ by putting their content online for free many years ago:
He calls it the ‘original sin’ myth:
“The most charitable thing I can say about it is: This is bullshit.”
I’ll let you read his post to get the full background, but as someone else who was there at the time I can only say: He’s right. What choice did publishers have? Let AOL or MSN steal an emerging fast-growing market as theirs declined?
The thing about this myth is that it relies upon some sort of ‘genie in the bottle’: the idea that news organisations had something special that they ‘let out’. That’s a nice story, but it’s only half the story.
In reality, what publishers had was just a bottle: a way of restricting the content that was available to their readers. The internet smashed that bottle: suddenly readers could access all sorts of content from all sorts of providers, including experts, celebrities, sports and fashion brands and eye witnesses.
As for the genie part: well, that’s where the story falls apart – on two levels.
Firstly, if the genie was content then newspapers didn’t have much exclusivity to sell: the problem wasn’t that the newspapers were giving away content for free; it was that their sources were giving away their stories for free, and that didn’t leave much left (it says something about journalism that we have to shout about stories when they are “exclusive” or an “investigation”).
But many newspapers now have bigger audiences than ever. The untold part of the story is the genie that newspapers really gave away: their dominance in advertising.
Craigslist and eBay did it better; Google did it better; and now Facebook do it better too.
Newspapers’ original sin was not that they gave away their content for free; it was that they gave away their advertisers for free.