Publishers are really debating what is scarce:
attention, content, trust … or merely money
The publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—a respected if often technologically revanchist newspaper—has blamed Google for media’s own alleged original sin of giving away content for free online.
“Google behaves like a mustard seller who promotes the distribution of free sausages,” FAZ head Thomas Lindner told a marketing conference in Hamburg, as he announced the expansion of his own pay wall.
In its report on the meeting, German media magazine Horizont says that Lindner sliced up the thesis of Google and those damned internet gurus: that media should give away information to get attention in return because it’s attention that is the scarce resource. This, Horizont explains, is at the heart of Google’s conspiracy to exploit others’ free content. Attention isn’t the real scarcity, Lindner argues. Instead, he says, what’s really scarce is reliable information. That’s what newspapers have and that’s what he’ll charge for. Google be damned!
I have trouble digesting a few of those ideas. First, Google didn’t tell newspapers to give away their content. Hell, when newspapers made that decision they were still hoping for links from Yahoo.
Second, no one can own information. Can one own reliability and trust? And is there a scarcity of that? Well, sure, but I don’t know that anyone has yet established a marketplace for either.
Next: Is attention scarce? Of course, that’s the accepted wisdom. In a future post, I will argue that attention might actually be more abundant than it used to be. Besides, Google’s not really selling attention. BuzzFeed is. We can’t blame Google for wasting our attention on llamas and dresses. That’s our own fucking fault.
Here’s the real problem for publishers:
What’s becoming scarce is scarcity itself.
Publishers and old industries of many kinds were built on controlling scarcities and thus gaining pricing power. Google—and the net itself—break up such control. They reward abundance over scarcity.
Google has figured out how to make money from abundance—putting ads all over the net to increase relevance and the odds that a user will click on one. Publishers don’t know how to do that. They still think they are producing a scarcity that will attract people to their brands. When people don’t come to newspapers’ sites and go to endless new competitors instead, publishers blame Google. When advertisers don’t buy ads from publishers and instead buy them from Google—which takes on the risk of the transaction—or from an abundance of competitors that have more valuable data about customers than newspapers do, publishers blame Google.
So, fine, FAZ, raise the price for your wurst. That’s your business and your right. But when readers find the news and information they need from Der Spiegel or Die Zeit or the Süddeutsche Zeitung or Focus or ZDF or ARD or Krautreporter … don’t blame Google.
Now please pass the mustard.