Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, likes the private/public hybrid idea so much he used it to help build the thesis of his recent book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson helped spread the term “freemium”—first popularized by New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson—to describe the mix of free and premium (i.e., very expensive) content that he believes is the dominant business model of the Internet age. He practices what he preaches, giving away electronic copies of his book to help build a personal brand he cashes in on by giving speeches.
In-person appearances are a profitable part of the private offerings of bigger news organizations, too. The FT’s Ridding says there is “a lot of interest and value in physical engagement. It is a very high margin business.” David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Group, with which Cook is affiliated, told the same story: “The live component is what the really high-end clients are interested in.”
The quiet rise of companies and individuals pursuing the professional/consumer hybrid should be a source of comfort—but also of some new concerns.
The upside is obvious. The private/public model is financing a lot of expensive-to-produce journalism. Its reach and ambitions are expanding as organizations trying to rework the advertising/subscription model are shrinking. It seeks better-trained journalists at a time when we are bemoaning the disappearance of good-paying journalism jobs.
One possible concern: as any freelancer can tell you, news organizations with an attractive consumer platform have realized they can free-ride on their contributors’ desire to build a consumer presence. Bradley explained: “The HuffPost is the leader, but all of us as followers are on to the same idea that contributors are looking to build their personal brands.” That imperative—which Tina Brown, founding editor of The Daily Beast, has described as the “gig” economy—lets companies like The Huffington Post buy freelance content for little or nothing; they are effectively renting space on their consumer platform to writers who hope to monetize that exposure. This deal only works for freelancers who have the profile and entrepreneurial energy to cash in on their personal brands in other ways.
But there is a larger principle at stake with the private/public hybrid, the question of who is journalism for? “All of us have an obligation: What are we doing to make the world a better place—better informed, for instance?” Winkler said. “The Web site goes a long way towards our commitment to the public interest.”
Still, the professional/consumer model only works if a moneyed elite is willing to pay for privileged access to information, whether that is a faster Reuters news flash or richer data on a Bloomberg terminal or a personal audience with a wise-cracking Charlie Cook. Wenig concedes that much of what his clients prize has little impact on the health of the demos: “The price of uranium matters a lot to a uranium trader, but it is not of much interest to a wider public.”
Wenig believes that “there has always been an information divide. There has always been a social and capital structure to information.” He’s not sure how the Internet-driven transformation of the media business will influence that divide, but “I can see an argument that says… maybe the Internet is widening it.”
Conventional wisdom says the Internet is making information more widely available, but that it also may be reducing the quality of that information and the number of people—journalists—paid to produce it. But if the professional/consumer model moves further into the news business, perhaps something close to the opposite will be true: more high-quality information will exist, and it will be produced by more well-trained and well-compensated journalists. But their work will be available—first and in the greatest detail—to the small group of people able to pay a lot of money for it.