Malcolm is wrong
I've never written those three words before, but he's never disagreed with Chris Anderson before, so there you go.
Free is the name of Chris's new book, and it's going to be wildly misunderstood and widely argued about.
The first argument that makes no sense is, "should we want free to be the future?"
Who cares if we want it? It is.
The second argument that makes no sense is, "how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?"
Who cares if it does? It is. It's happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I'm sorry if that's inconvenient, but it's true.
As I see 'free', there are two forces at work:
In an attention economy (like this one), marketers struggle for attention and if you don't have it, you lose. Free is a relatively cheap way to get attention (both at the start and then through viral techniques).
Second, in a digital economy with lots of players and lower barriers to entry, it's quite natural that the price will be lowered until it meets the incremental cost of making one more unit. If a brand can gain share by charging less, a rational player will.
Conde Nast (publisher of the Wired (Chris's magazine) and yes, the New Yorker (Malcolm's magazine)), is going to go out of business long before you get sick, never mind die. So will newspapers printed on paper. They're going to disappear before you do. I'm not wishing for this to happen, but by refusing to build new digital assets that matter, traditional publishers are forfeiting their future.
Magazines and newspapers were perfect businesses for a moment of time, but they wouldn't have worked in 1784, and they're not going to work very soon in the future either.
We're always going to need writers, but the business model of their platform is going to change.
People will pay for content if it is so unique they can't get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. We'll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.
People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday's news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn't it?
Like all dying industries, the old perfect businesses will whine, criticize, demonize and most of all, lobby for relief. It won't work. The big reason is simple:
In a world of free, everyone can play.
This is huge. When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage.
The reason that we needed paid contributors before was that there was only economic room for a few magazines, a few TV channels, a few pottery stores, a few of everything. In world where there is room for anyone to present their work, anyone will present their work. Editors become ever more powerful and valued, while the need for attention grows so acute that free may even be considered expensive.
Of course, it's ironic that sometimes people pay money for my books (I view them as souvenirs of content you could get less conveniently and less organized for free online if you chose to). And it's ironic that I read Malcolm's review for free. And ironic that you can read Chris's arguments the most cogently by paying for them. [Update: you can chime in here and see what's being said around the web as well.]
Neatness is for historians. For a long time, all the markets for attention-based goods are going to be messy, which means that there are going to be huge opportunities for people (like you?) able to get that most precisous asset (our attention) for free. At least for a while.