Monday, February 16, 2009

What would Jeff Jarvis do?

Free is a business model. I know this, because Jeff Jarvis says so. Actually, I think Chris Anderson, the author of “The Long Tail” may have said it first. Be that as it may, here’s the question:

Given Jeff’s deeply held belief that content should be free, why is he charging a retail price of $26.99 for his new book?

The central thesis of Jeff’s book, “What Would Google Do?”, seems to be that music, news stories, legal advice and other types of intellectual property should be free to roam the web to create links and communities which, somehow, Providence eventually will monetize.

So, why is Jeff charging $27.99 for the audio version of his new book?

Weighing in here on why the news should be free, Jeff opined at his popular blog, BuzzMachine: “Experience just tells us that it’s hard to charge for content, that charging brings other costs (subscriber acquisition marketing, customer service, churn), that it has other impact (draining Googlejuice and online branding and taking the content out of the conversation), that there is always another competitor who will offer content for free, and that once information is known, it becomes a commodity. See: TimesSelect. Charging is definitely a case of swimming upstream.”

So, why is Jeff charging $14.84 for the Kindle version of his new book?

Wondering why anyone would pay for the news or an opinion column, Jeff observed here: “A news story or an opinion, like a song, is unique—that you can’t get it somewhere else and so you have to buy the original. If I can’t get Allentown, the original, I’m not likely to settle for a cover. But if I can’t get [the column by David Carr the New York Times suggesting micropayments for newspaper articles], believe me, I can go elsewhere and find plenty more columns and blog posts just like it. And even if Carr had a unique idea here, the essence of it—without guitar accompaniment—can spread without having to hear him sing the tune. Information isn’t art. Neither are opinions.”

So, why is Jeff charging $9.99 to download a video infomercial for his new book?

He forthrightly answered the question himself here in Newsweek: “I'm a hypocrite. I didn't put this book up as a purely digital, searchable, linkable entity — I didn't eat my own dog food —because I got an advance from the publisher, and other services. Dog’s gotta eat. I couldn't pass it up.”

Speaking of dog food, I need to go buy some myself. I hope the store accepts Googlejuice in lieu of cash.


Blogger Tim Windsor said...

Not to take a light post too seriously, but the short answer is that Jarvis would not have gotten that contract had he not, essentially, "given away" the contents of the book over the past few years on his blog, raising his profile enough that he could command such a price.

See related: Dan Lyons and his "worthless" blog that got him a book contract and contributed mightily to his ability to land a steady gig at Newsweek.


8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff Jarvis is a capitalist. He is interested in one thing -- making money.

He doesn't need the money to "eat" as he tries to put it. No, he just needs the money because he likes money.

Of all the books in the world, WWGD, should be a free, searchable, linkable book. I see nothing wrong with selling a print version. After all, many people don't like reading on computer screens, but why isn't there a free Web version?

I can only hope that Jeff and his publishers eventually come to their senses and make this into a Web site. Shouldn't this information be free?

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Internet as promotional tool, great. Internet as a business model, not so much.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Internet as a promotional too, great. Internet as a business model using "information wants to be free" as the strategy, not so much.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have respected a lot of the information you have brought to the discussion regarding the future of newspapers. However, you are kicking the wrong dog here. And it is because you disagree with Jarvis' position that news should be free.

Newspapers are just as FREE as Jarvis to charge for their content. The question isn't whether they can, but whether they should. You as well as many others know newspapers have charged for their online content in the past.

Whether Jarvis should be charging for his book now may have a relationship to the argument about newspapers, but it isn't what you may want to hear. If nobody wants to pay for the Jarvis content, then charging for it won't work in the long run. The publisher will decide they made a big mistake, he won't make much money, and there won't be follow up book deals. Same goes for newspapers: if nobody wants to pay for their content then they will learn a difficult and likely final lesson.

Here is my advice (and I don't have a book deal): Newspapers should form their little group, fix a price for their content, see if they can hold the cabal together long enough for its effects to kick in, and then we will all see what happens.

Just my two cents: I'm really tired of this discussion. If newspapers have the balls to do this, it's time to pull them out and lay them on the table. At this point it may only take a year or so to find out if they walk away with a business model or without their balls (or the pants they walked in with).

Maybe Jarvis is full of crap. On the surface it seems like he has little to lose and much to gain by staking out his position. Newspapers have everything to lose if they are wrong in a gambit that would have them trying to sustain their business by shutting off the internet to all but paying customers. So good luck to them if they are willing to take that gamble.

By the way: I currently work for a newspaper company and have been in the business for nearly 30 years. I literally have everything to lose by what newspaper companies decide to do for their future. But I am willing to gamble my future just to have everyone shut up about this topic. I say newspapers should do it and see what happens. They win, you can tell Jarvis to shut up forever. He proves to be right, I would love to never hear about any of this again.

10:20 PM  
Blogger jdvorkin said...

If we appear to be entering a new economic order in journalism, then some things may be worth paying for and others may not. The problem is not that Jeff is charging something for his thoughts. The problem is whether there is an oversupply of Jarvis. If there is, then we should pay less or nothing and the Jarvis Corp. will produce less and thus raise the value. Journalism's problem (imo) is that there is an oversupply of goods (content) and now, in a recession, not enough money to pay for them. In Economics 101 it's called deflation. In Journalism 101, it's called stupid.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Jeff Jarvis, 99.9% of the time, but this is something I don't understand:

As the president and creative director of Newhouse's online sites until 2005, how can Jarvis be considered credible on any subject related to online?

Newhouse's sites were arguably the worst of all the corporately directed sites. These sites were universally despised by all the publishers, editors and ad execs I met and worked for at Newhouse papers in Springfield, Cleveland, Birmingham and elsewhere.

I was told that Newhouse set up Advance Internet - which is the corporate entity that ran the sites - as a business unit separate from the newspapers because the Newhouse clan wasn't sure the Internet would last, so they wanted the freedom to dismiss online employees without breaking the "No Layoffs at Newhouse" rule that guided their newspapers.

2:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free content as marketing for your skills is a good idea. That model is fine if the purpose of giving away the content is to move into an activity that is financially sustainable. This assumes that you savings or some other revenue-producing activity that subsidizes your activity.

But can a company do this? What is the analogue to the "job" or other financially sustainable activity that they be able to transition to?

In my opinion, the answer is to sell yourself to someone else and let them worry about being profitable.

In short I don't think this answers the question for companies that desire to be self-sustaining.

2:46 AM  
Blogger Rufus said...

@Tim Giving away the content on his blog was a marketing expense to enable him to raise his profile to be able to then charge for content. It is not the same as "free." His media profits is the ROI of this "free" stuff.

This is not a light post and you should take it seriously. Your response reflects the misunderstanding of the whole picture, that good journalism, good writing, good media cost money to produce, whether that is in payroll and office space at a newspaper or time and effort by a talented writer/blogger to be able to sell books.

Quit drinking the Google-ade. Even all the free stuff at Google is an investment to be able to infiltrate every crack in our on-line lives to be able to build an audience large enough to sell advertising to be able to afford people to build free stuff... that is the great circle of economics. But, if you have a larger population of takers than givers, you quickly run out of stuff.

Free-loaders on the Internet are like a herd of locusts. They descend on a site, rape it of the crop AND the seed and move on, leaving a barren field.

Oh, what do I know. I'm just a dog, leaving piles of free stuff everywhere I walk at http;// And that is the sort of poop I'm not going to charge you to take.

4:06 AM  
Blogger SquirrelGM said...

He's following a simple idea ...

Establish your brand and build your reputation with free stuff, monetize the bajeezus out of everything else.

See, the problem is, newspapers -- as an industry -- don't want to PRODUCE anything NEW to monetize ... they just want to monetize the same stuff they've been doing anyway. (Essentially, they want the public to give them MORE MONEY for the exact same content they've already been producing anyway.)

The Web totally doesn't work that way.

If you want people to spend on your product, it has to be for something UNIQUE, something you can't get anywhere else (not to mention something of VALUE).

I don't blame this guy a whit for charging for SOME content while giving other content away for free.

It's just a smart business strategy.

4:24 AM  
Blogger Racoon said...

If 'googlejuice' principally attains its value (and its purveyors attain $) through links to articles and opinions originally published in newspapers, cannot the industry seek to filter Internet 'commerce' in googlejuice?

There's the First Amendment, but there's also security in one's property, right?

4:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Alan: You expect a touche. Fine: Touche.

But note that you can read the book for free here. And I'm putting up an excerpt a day for 30 days. And I put up the PowerPoint for free. And Tim said it better than I could: The book contract came only because I freely discussed the ideas in the book on my blog.

I'll just bet a few consulting and speaking gigs have come to you because you freely discuss your ideas and research here.

I've never said that charging for content is bad. If you can do it, mazel tov!

What I'm saying instead is that wishing to charge doesn't make it come true when economic and competitive realities and other factors militate against it.

Do we all thing the New York Times was stupid to get rid of TimesSelect? They did it for good business reasons, the ones I outline (and you quote above).

I do fully confess my hypocrisy in the book: I took a publisher's advance because the publisher still has (for now) a business model that enables charging. Good for them (and me). It's great that the FT and WSJ can get money out of expense accounts and that Bloomberg terminals still bring in revenue for the same reason.

But I'm arguing that one cannot look at the revenue stream in isolation when there are other costs - and benefits - involved. I know you know that because there's nobody savvier and better informed and researched on the business realities of news today.

So let's work out some of those other costs and benefits and match them with the real world experience of those who've tried to charge. If they can do it, great. But if they can't, we still must find and execute viable business models. On that, I'm sure we agree.

7:09 AM  
Blogger David Brauer said...

For the record, Jeff Jarvis' "free version" link broke.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

This is the link to the free version of Jeff's book.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mike Cane said...

>>>Dan Lyons and his "worthless" blog that got him a book contract and contributed mightily to his ability to land a steady gig at Newsweek.

A bit of a correction is in order there. Dan Lyons already had a steady gig, at Forbes, I believe. His bosses never knew he was FSJ. He also had two books published -- a novel and short story collection -- well before he was at Forbes or ever dreamed of becoming FSJ.

You make him sound like some snake oil opportunist. He wasn't and isn't.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought Jeff's book not to buy his ideas, but to show that I support him. His ideas are free on his blog. The money I paid for the book is a "gratuity" for his work. I bought the book not because I have to in order to gain insight to his ideas and theories, but to say thank you for his work.
If he had a "tip jar", I would have donated 20 bucks.
You seem bitter at the internet and the breakdown of the traditional media business model, but take it out on the messenger, Jeff.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Clever Idea Widgetry said...

This is why today's journalists' mindsets keep losing and going hungry. They are bound and determined to be the sorts of people that people that "win" with witty words and guilt laden arguments. Facts be damned.

Given the link Alan's just posted, he's definitely invalidated his entire post and perhaps his entire blog.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@anonymous 10:20 p.m. -- I empathize with your sense of exhaustion at the back-and-forth between the "free" and "monetize content" camps. Personally, I'm not tired of the talk, because my hope is that news companies are listening to the chatter and will consider it wisely when they decide, as I'm sure they will, to charge for content. The most I think they can get away with, though, is charging for premium content, using their free articles to entice readers, much as Jarvis uses his free marketing to plug WWGD.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Only Maureen Dowd seems to be able to make churlishness pay off, and lately, not so much. I'm sorry to see Mr. Mutter waste his time trying to match her. It would seem that newsies will try anything to avoid facing the fact that less and less folks find their products worth the cost. I miss the 'news' part, but I missed it even more when I payed for a newspaper and still couldn't get the who-what-where-when and how.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, you have always impressed me as a pretty smart guy. How come you and so many other newspaper people seem to be over-simplifying Jarvis' message to "he says everything should be free all of the time."

As a long-time reader of his blog and yours, I'm pretty sure that isn't what he has said. He does contend that newspapers should stick with providing most of their content for free online, but as he says in his response to you here: "I've never said that charging for content is bad. If you can do it, mazel tov!"

The fundamental flaw in the plan to charge for newspaper content championed by you and others is that newspapers need the money, therefore people will have to pay for the content. The reality of the internet is people only have to pay for what they want.

Jarvis is a pundit and consultant. He makes some of his money with bombastic statements. He also has a somewhat checkered internet past. As Newhouse employee, I wish I was aware of worse news web sites than those from Advance Internet. I have sat in meetings with Jarvis where he has taken the blame as one of the brains behind AI. Perhaps it met some need when it was created more than a decade ago, it's greatest problem now is an inability to adapt.

But the problem isn't the opinions espoused by Jarvis. His free model could be as bad as his worst or as good as his best. No one is forced to follow them and he is only risking his reputation in stating them.

The problem is the current newspaper economics are forcing some kind of change. Many newspapers that elect to change in the wrong way will probably cease to exist. If they band together to charge for their content and that plan fails (because not enough people value newspaper content enough to provide the necessary revenue stream) they're gone.

Just because that is a plan that newspaper folk understand doesn't mean it will work. But if they do succeed, that won't necessarily mean Jarvis is completely wrong. If people are willing to pay, mazel tov to us all.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As a frequent critic of Jeff Jarvis on Twitter, where I have a great time pointing out in irreverent fashion the recurring hypocrisy of his evangelizing, let me actually make a serious case for why Jeff Jarvis has published complete bullshit.

"I do fully confess my hypocrisy in the book."

This is his ACTUAL explanation for why it's OK for him to charge for his book. It's also his explanation for why it's OK to continue taking money from Google via AdWords even while traveling the world comparing the company to Jesus. It's also his explanation for why it's OK to write a book about a company without interviewing anyone at the company.

If you'd like to risk your business by taking advice from someone who ...

1) Admits not taking his own advice.

2) Admits his advice promotes a company that pays him.

3) Admits he had no actual conversations with said company.

... then let me introduce you to a guy I know who can get you a great deal on some stock. Amazing returns!

Seriously, people. And we wonder why media outlets are collapsing? What happened to skepticism?

Stop taking Jeff's advice. Start following his example. Create free content (with ads around it) that leads people right up to a paid wall for uppercrust content. Free is a business model only when it's tied to a paid outcome -- that's what Chris Anderson will tell you, and that's what Jeff really means if you stop reading his book and watch how he runs his own life.

And one truly valuable lesson from the great Jarvis. Promote the hell out of your products. I know Google doesn't spend a penny on advertising. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Heck, Jeff spends loads of time (which is money) promoting himself and his books via events, and even via paid advertisements. Promotion works.

And I know Jeff says Google is sooo cool because it devalues brands. But let's remember that Jeff has done a fairly good job turning himself into a brand. He wouldn't be so keen about removing his name from his book, or his site, or his Twitter feed, the list goes on and on.

And so could I.

Let me disclose (read: absolve myself from criticism) that I haven't read Jeff's book. Instead, I did what Google would do ... I skimmed the headline and a summary and figured that was close enough.

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The free market has placed a value on the products of modern journalists. That value is close to zero.

Perhaps instead of squabbling over ways to get money out of people who are not willing to pay, journalists should consider what is wrong with their product?

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do owe Jeff a bit of an apology. It seems there is an online version of his book. That's a good start.

I'd love to eventually see something along these lines, where people can annotate and comment on the book. I'd also like to see WWGD in HTML format, not a scanned version.

Maybe in a year, when sales die down, we can see something like that.

6:55 AM  
Blogger tgd said...

At the risk of being accused of pointing out common ground (there goes whatever shred of journalistic cred I had left):

Hal Varian & Scott Shapiro pointed out the economic rationale behind mixed approaches of free/paid more than a decade ago, in their brilliant Information Rules*.

See especially the chapter on versioning.

Jeff's blog? Free, in a constantly evolving, inconvenient package.

Jeff's book? Thirty bucks, with the imprimatur of permanency.

(Sorry, Lucas: Whatever issues you have with Jeff, the hard-core economics of the issue shouldn't be one of them.)

(*And when I'm named benevolent dictator, this book will be required reading for anyone who wishes to intelligently debate paid content, among other topics. ;-) )

6:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The hard core economics of the issue?

I never seriously suggested Jeff shouldn't charge for his book. My point is Jeff shouldn't charge for his book while telling everyone else to give their content away for free.

Oh, and then there's all those journalism ethics things.

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...





7:47 PM  
Blogger Luis Argandoña said...

I admire you work on this blog Alan, and I particularly appreciate your contribution of hard data to a debate that is in desperate need of it.
But now I think you got it plain wrong. This is not a moral issue. It is a basic-economics issue.

Jarvis charges simply because he can. Most newspapers online can not. At least for commodity news.

And he has never advised to tear down paywalls on moral or ethical grounds.

Let's just keep on looking for new, realistic and out-of-the box models. For example, take a look at this bestselling chilean newspaper:, off and online newspaper, totally unlinkable and old-fashioned ad model. Yes, it s totally "anti-internet", but it works really fine... this far.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why aren't you charging us to read this blog?

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the psychiatrist on The West Wing said: "Screw around if you want, but it's your money, it's about to be my money, and I sleep fine."

Jarvis may or may not be a jerk, and focusing on him instead of your business may feel good, but it doesn't get you any closer to solving your problem.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Andrew R said...


The link posted is not the complete book. It's appox. 100 pages.
Where's the complete WWGD?

9:31 PM  
Blogger Jeff Faria said...





Journalists actually are NOT that smart. (If they WERE, they'd see through Jarvis easily.) Other than that, that comment was spot-on brilliant.

5:45 PM  

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