In 2009, Alan Mutter famously warned publishers they were committing the “original sin” of giving away their content for free online. While the infantile internet cried “Information wants to be free,” he presaged financial disaster for brands that forgot how they make money.
“Mutter thought it would be as difficult for publishers to overcome the problems caused by giving their content away for free as it has been for humanity to get past Adam and Eve’s biblical transgressions,” explains Peter Houston in Fipp. “He concluded ‘consumers were either going to have to start paying for professionally generated content or there won’t much of it left’.”
A decade later, publishers seem to be repenting of this sin in droves – Wired has a shiny new paywall this month, joining many other media titles that are pursuing paid content strategies.
According to Houston, publishers have compounded the error of giving away their content by giving away their audiences, too – the second sin of modern magazine publishing.
“Executive eagerness to re-distribute magazine and newspaper content on third-party platforms has seriously weakened the bond between content creator and content consumer. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017, less than half of people finding a news story through social media remember the brand behind it,” he notes.
Third-party distribution looked like too much of a crapshoot from the start. And the hesitation proved prescient. Publishers saw their referral traffic sink, and it’s only going to get worse with Facebook’s new algorithm.
In all of this, here’s the silver lining, the redemption moment.
“We can blame Facebook’s boss all we want for the media’s woes, but at least he is looking after his own. At the first sign of trouble, he’s gone straight back to where he started, prioritizing the friends and family content that people regularly say they want in their newsfeeds,” he notes.
Publishers would do well to take the same kind of approach and return to their roots, with an audience-first mantra. Call it penance, or atonement, or just a massive industry-wide realization – the tide is turning back to owned and operated distribution and paid content.