Are All Content Producers “Internet Slaves”? — Why Can’t We Place A Value of Online Content?


In a compelling op-ed published in the New York Times entitled, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider, an author of “We Learn Nothing,” a collection of essays and cartoons, makes the case that once artists became known as “content providers,” they were “essentially extinct.”

The situation for writers is that: 

“People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.”

What has lead us to this point?

“Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.” 

It’s interesting that this op-ed follows an article from the previous Sunday’s New York Times that talked about difficult clients, among the warning signs are “Whenever someone tells me, ‘I dabble in writing myself’ or ‘This just needs some polishing up’ alarm bells start ringing. Why? Someone who ‘dabbles in writing’ thinks they could do a great job themselves and they’ll micromanage you or worse, not pay what you’re worth.”

For writers and those PR agencies and departments that hire writers, including companies looking to become thought leaders by regularly publishing fresh content, this question about the value of writing is not going to go away.

A decade or so ago, you could develop a marketing brochure in January and you could use it all year, possibly longer than that. But these days, you can’t get away with the same brochure and content throughout the year. You need to regularly refresh and update your blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, LinkedIn group, etc. That means there is a value to producing new content but the point that Kreider and others make is that no one seems willing to pay an appropriate amount for it. After all, blogs, like this one, are designed to give away content while many newspapers and magazines also make their content available for free, whether you’re a subscriber or not.

I don’t see the situation changing but here are some questions to consider:

  • Why does the content-consumer public feel they don’t need to pay for the content they’re consumer (unless it’s on Netflix)?
  • There’s always going to be someone willing to take a job for “the exposure” so how can established writers compete?
  • Companies may be able to afford to give away content but what can artists do to better support themselves — including the freelancers who find they can no longer afford to write — which could leave companies scrambling to find new content providers?
  • If companies can’t point to specific sales generated by the content they produce to entice customers, how can they place a value on that content?
  • Can the model of free content be sustainable? Should it?
  • Should companies continue to give away their content?
  • Aside from page views, how can we provide an estimate of the value of our content?
  • How can freelancers and companies alike monetize their content?

That last question may be connected to my last two blog posts, “Why are Pogue, Mossberg & Swisher Leaving the NYT & WSJ?” and “Why Pogue, Mossberg & Swisher Are Leaving the NYT & WSJ, Part II.”

Seems like even top reporters (aka “content producers”) are looking for new opportunities because they can’t make the money the old fashioned way. I don’t think this problem is one that affects only writers and artists. It affects not just media companies but any company that produces content.

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