Free because we blog, tweet, in an attention economy

Singapore’s Straits Times and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post are the only English language newspapers I know that do not allow their stories to be read online for free.

Even the Financial Times allows some of its stories to be read for free.

Not the Straits Times. All you can read for free on its website are wire stories, letters to the editor, readers’ comments — and, yes, its blogs. Just don’t expect to see the newspaper’s regular columnists there. You can read Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman for free, but you have to pay to read Andy Ho and Sumiko Tan.

It just goes to show the amazing strength of the Straits Times that, while virtually everyone else is giving away original content for free, it can still charge for what it has to offer.

Digital cheap

Newspapers can allow free online access because the digital medium is so cheap, says Chris Anderson in his book, Free. It’s fascinating reading. The Wired magazine editor says why readers must pay to read his magazine but enjoy free access to the website:

“In print, I operate by the rules of scarcity, since each page is expensive and I have a limited number of them… Not only are our pages expensive, they are also unchangeable. Once the presses run, our mistakes and errors of judgment are preserved for posterity (or at least until they are recycled)…

“Online, however, pages are infinite and indefinitely changeable. It’s an abundance economy and invites a totally different management approach. On our Web site we have dozens of bloggers, many of them amateurs, who write what they want, without editing…

“Standards such as accuracy and fairness apply across the board, but in print we have to get everything right before publication, at great expense, while online we can correct as we go.”

The website costs only a fraction of the magazine business:

“We pay dollars to print, bind and mail a magazine to you… but just microcents to show it to you on our Web site. That’s why we can treat it as free, because on a user-by-user basis, it is, in fact, too cheap to meter.

“Overall, our server and bandwidth bill amounts to several thousand dollars a month. But that’s to reach millions of readers.”

Newspaper publishers are beginning to ask what’s the point of reaching millions of readers when advertisers are willing to pay for only a certain target audience.

Attention economy

But money alone no longer makes the world go round, as even businesses acknowledge. Why else do they make such a fuss about brand recognition?

Welcome to the attention economy. Another reason to read Free, especially if you are a blogger or interested in the media.

Anderson explains the new economy in terms any blogger or user of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace will understand:

“Today when you link to someone on your blog, you are effectively giving them some of your own reputation. In a sense, you are saying to your audience: ‘Leave me. Go to this other place. I think you’ll like it, and if you do, perhaps you’ll think more of me for having recommended it.’

“Ideally, this transfer of reputation leaves both parties richer. Good recommendations build trust with a readership, and being recommended confers trust, too. And with trust comes traffic.

Google, PageRank

“Now we have a real marketplace of reputation — it’s Google. What is the currency of reputation online other than Google’s PageRank algorithm?

“PageRank is a deceptively simple idea with great power. It basically states that incoming links are like votes, and that incoming links from sites which themselves have lots of incoming links count for more than those that don’t…

“That makes Google cofounder Larry Page (the punning Page in PageRank) the central banker of the Google economy. He and his Google colleagues control the money supply. They tweak the algorithm constantly to ensure it retains its value…

“But just as with central bankers these days, controlling one currency is far from controlling the entire economy. Think of Google as the United States of the Web — only the biggest of many reputation and attention economies. It’s not a closed economy, since it’s just part of the bigger Web economy. And around it are countless other reputation and attention economies, each with its own currencies.


“Facebook and MySpace have ‘friends’. EBay has seller and buyer ratings. Twitter has ‘followers’, Slashdot has ‘karma’ and so on.”

Fortunes can be made in the attention economy, Anderson shows through the example of Facebook:

“Facebook ‘friends’ are a classic unit of reputational currency. The more ‘friends’ you have, the more influence you have in the Facebook world… Indeed, most of the value of Facebook is in the fact that it has perhaps created the world’s largest closed market of reputational currency, which is the foundation of its estimated multibillion-dollar valuation.

“But figuring out exactly how many billions of dollars Facebook is worth has been a tricky matter. It’s probably some multiple of the users it has and the number of connections between them, which is what “friending” someone creates.”

No wonder Facebook is free — and wants you to use your full name so others can find you by doing a simple search.

The attention economy is transforming the media industry. The Straits Times can still afford to charge for original content. But it’s a rare exception.

Amateurs and pros

Anderson writes:

“It’s true: Free does tend to level the playing field between professionals and amateurs. As more people create content for nonmonetary reasons, the competition to those doing it for money grows… By and large, that means newspapers are an industry that will probably have to reinvent itself as dramatically as music labels. The top tier (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal) will probably shrink a bit, and the tier below that may be decimated.

“But out of the bloodbath will come a new role for professional journalists. There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media.But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full-time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free — paying people to get other people to write for nonmonetary rewards — may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.”

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