“One day, the Web will be friggin’ empty”

That’s what the CEO of the German VPRT, the lobby of commercial broadcasters and tele-media, said on his keynote during the Munich Media Days last week. No, wait for the punchline! It’s also his organisation who’s commissioning the study which concludes that the web is full of illegal content (in this study, everything that was availbale for free was counted as illegal — yes, they were and still are on a mission).

What he meant to say with the headline quote was of course that the world needs his peers to enjoy the richness of online media, and he argued that the government needs to push for stricter copyright laws. Like what? Sanctioning free content because it’s harming his peers’ business? I’m sure he’d love that. It’s just that way of 19th century thinking that once you’ve set up your factory, it’s going to run forever and all the boss has to do is maximize profits. In addition, new industries would pop up and the one with more money would buy the other and so forth. And it all keeps growing and growing.

But as the post-industrial age has kicked in long ago, it should have become obvious that it doesn’t work like that any more. And it won’t help that your industry is not producing material goods but collecting and repacking information (or rather data, I can’t help but come back to my axiom again), because it’s still run like the old-fashioned factory. We don’t need factories any more, we’ve had them long enough.

What’s not working anymore is people who used to buy an issue of a magazine with at least 50% advertising in the real world, won’t do this online. They have the choice of getting their desired information one article at a time from the source they like best. With ads or without. Paid or for free. Yet publishers had a hard time adapting their question “How can I get as many people as possible to buy / subscribe to my magazine?” to “How can I offer the best content for an acceptable price?” (of course there’s also the industrial “How can I lower the quality without losing too much of the readership?”), but the new question is a different one.

This new question is “How does my stuff fit into the big picture?”. There are millions of outlets on the Web offering articles on the same topics as pay-for magazines, but for free. Not as consistent in terms of output volume and regularity, but often in terms of quality. This leads to my idea where commercial publishers seek the cooperation with authors who publish for free. The commercial publishers will then support the free authors by publishing their (commercial) articles on their (free authors’) website or blog, like guest articles (of course these article have to be paid for when someone wants to read them, and the free author whose site the thing is published on gets a small share), thus improving the experience for the audience.

Instead of trying to persuade the world to come to their place, publishers of every kind of media must start serving all the outlets out there (this is what Seth Godin refers to as curatorship). What publishers understood is they need to be on the shelf in as many stores as possible. Now, moving beyond physicality, the number and variety of stores is infinite. And infinity has always been a good prerequisite to make money for a long time to come. If you embrace it.

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