Is paid content more valuable – and more reliable – than free content?
This is an important question in light of Pew Research’s recent survey that most Americans now get their news online. There’s no doubt that there is plenty of free material available on the Internet that is reliable. Newspapers, including the New York Times and USA Today, post their articles online for free (at least for the time being). The same goes for most magazines – from TIME and Newsweek to Sports Illustrated to Forbes.
But is this really free content? I’d argue that the online properties of offline publications aren’t truly offering “free” content. It is subsidized content. In other words, it is paid content that is being given away. As I’ve argued before – free isn’t a good business model for journalism and I don’t believe the current state of “free” for newspapers and magazines is sustainable.
So for the time being let’s remove newspapers, magazines and other subsidized content from the argument (I’d also include here the online web sites for TV and cable stations and radio stations).
That creates a big hole in the reliability of online content as many of the remaining “free” sources of content use the subsidized content as the basis for their own content – think about news aggregators like Digg.com, Google News, Reddit, All Top and even Facebook. But even most bloggers don’t do actual reporting – they rely on news services to do that for them – and then comment on or add to the reporting.
That said there are other reliable sources of free online content. For the most part, you can get reliable information from Wikipedia. There are also many free blogs by citizen journalists and experts (including this one, I hope) that provide – if not original information – then good analysis and reasoned opinions based on good, reliable sources.
If you look at the graphic above – those sources are in the middle. Those are the “Facts.” Sources of free information online that have processes in place to check, double check, and publish information that is based on facts. In my opinion, those online sources are smaller than we think (especially when we do not including subsidized content). They are also being squeezed from the left and the right by “Spin” and by “Deceit.”
What is “Spin” (a word my peers in PR generally hate)?
Spin is content generated by any source that has an agenda – political parties, non-profit organizations, corporations, activists, political action committees, trade associations, unions, and even branches of the government. Spin isn’t necessarily “untruth” and, in fact, good spin uses reliable information to make its case. When you get a bit of information from a friend it probably contains some of their spin – unintentional most of the time, but filtered through their own experiences and biases.
That’s the problem with Spin. It is guilty of sometimes ignoring facts that contradict or weaken its arguments. In other words, Spin can of cherry pick facts to make its case. So consumers of online content need to be able to recognize Spin and read it with a healthy amount of skepticism. Consumers also need to educate themselves in identifying the sources of information that they are reading.
For example, if you’re reading a blog post on various tips for removing grass stains from clothing and its written by a laundry detergent manufacturer then the information is most definitely Spin, but probably very reliable Spin. After all, the detergent manufacturer is probably an expert on this topic. But if this same company is writing a post about the benefits of corporate tax cuts for detergent manufacturers – then, well, the information might not be as reliable.
Deceit is outright lies or misinformation either by design or from ignorance. An example of purposeful deceit are the web sites and blogs that promote the Holocaust as an elaborate hoax and not a historical truth. There are other web sites that promote deceit, but do so out of ignorance rather than on purpose. An example of this could be actress Jenny McCarthy who promotes that childhood vaccinations cause autism in children despite the lack of any scientific evidence to back up her claims.
So with so much Spin and Deceit online – how reliable is free content? Can it be trusted as much as paid or subsidized content? Is information on the Internet only reliable because of the presence of paid and subsidized content? Is there a way to improve the quality of free content? Or does the old adage: “Buyer Beware” take on a new meaning online?
And, lastly, is the easy availability of Spin and Deceit online responsible for the state of misinformation we find ourselves in today?
Lots of questions, I know, but I’d be interested in listening to your opinions about this topic.