Information Also Wants to Be Expensive

Editors are rarely comfortable using the word content to describe their line of business, given that it suggests a kind of “undifferentiated slurry,” to borrow a phrase to be discussed below. They might prefer instead to substitute the word information, but they would be well advised to resist the temptation. There is a not-so-obvious but critical distinction between the two words that is worth preserving.

This topic came up in a sidelong way on the Web over the last week or so, in a flurry of blog postings and tweets about a new essay by Paul Graham called “Post-Medium Publishing.” The number of posts and their level of enthusiasm suggests that Graham’s essay may be close to meme-level status. Jeff Jarvis, for one, thinks Graham’s piece may rank near a “seminal” essay by Clay Shirky on the “demise of news on paper.”

Graham’s main argument is that content has basically always been free. When you buy a newspaper or a book, he says, you’re paying for the format, not the content: “Economically,” he says, “the print media are in the business of marking up paper.”

For my purposes, though, I’m more interested in the distinction Graham draws between content and information.  In a fascinating footnote, Graham explains that he was at first reluctant to use the word content because it implies an “undifferentiated slurry.” But, he goes on to say, he realized that his discomfort with the word relates to the thesis of his essay.  The problem with publishers is precisely that they are trying to sell content, or “information you don’t need.”

This is another way of saying that content is a commodity. It’s not that no one wants it. Rather, what content consumers are willing to pay for it is basically the marked-up cost of the medium it’s wrapped in.

This is hardly a shocking perspective to B2B publishers, who haven’t generally charged subscribers for content. And the advertisers aren’t paying for the content either—they’re buying access to the readers. So the content really is free. (Now is it also an “undifferentiated slurry”? Well, in unguarded and well-past-deadline moments, even editors tend to think of content as the stuff they fit between the ads.)

For B2B readers, Graham’s most valuable comments may be about the information business. As he notes, “people will pay for information they think they can make money from.” That’s why they used to pay for stock-tip newsletters, he says, and why they pay now for “Bloomberg terminals and Economist Intelligence Unit reports.” A bit less obviously, he says that the business of selling information has historically been a distinct business from publishing.

This is the key point for B2B types. Yes, we’re used to giving away our content for free and so don’t have to go through that wrenching mental evolution that consumer publishers are struggling with. But by the same token, it’s a bit too easy for us to forget that people will pay for information they urgently need.

(One reason this observation may seem less than obvious these days is the prevalence of the Internet motto, “Information wants to be free.” But as the Wikipedia entry on the history of this phrase makes clear, information also wants to be expensive. For Graham, content is information that has given up that desire.)

Most B2B publishers have all the editorial resources they need to get into the information business. The main work they face is to develop the information marketing apparatus to promote and distribute information products. It’s something of a cultural shift, certainly, but less drastic than consumer publishers are facing.

As newspapers and other mainstream publishers will find out sooner or later, it just doesn’t work to charge for content. But B2B people will do well to take note of the less-obvious corollary: it does work to charge for information.