Content costs too much to support. Is this the end of the professional non-fiction writer?
One of the most overused and hackneyed phrases when talking about websites and their economics is "content is king".
The rough idea is that if you have quality content then clients will beat their way to your door as if you had a better mousetrap waiting for them. Well the truth of this nonsense is completely null and void for a range of reasons which are the subject of other discussions. In this case I want to concentrate for a moment on the economics of providing content for a website.
A paper print magazine could afford to pay a reasonable rate for quality content. A journalist expects to earn anything from $200 to over $500 per thousand words and then you have the additional costs of photography or illustration. At the end of the day a four-page article typically would cost upwards of $2000. Before you start to protest and perhaps faint at the idea of so much money for so few words I should point out that from a journalist's point of view the going rate per hour would seem low. All that research and organisation of facts and ideas has to be added on to the time actually spent sitting down in front of a wordprocessor. The cost of a thousand words isn't answered by asking "how fast can you type".
Of course the web is a very different place and it makes words cheap. A blog is often written off the top of the head with no need for research or investigation - unlike this one of course! A long article is simply a waste of resources because the average web user doesn't read more than 500 words before moving on to another bite-sized chunk. Photos are freely available so you don't need a photographer and illustrations are mostly irrelevant or the author does the job for free - usually not very well. Of course there are the brilliant exceptions and these are the ones that are trotted out to prove that everything is for the best…
The rewards of publishing a web page are generally so low that content just has to be cheap. It's one of the reasons that the traditional media is having such a tough time making the books balance. It uses journalists who expect to be paid the old rate for copy and their costs are just too high for the income generated. You simply cannot support the infrastructure of a traditional newspaper or magazine in the web arena by translating the old ways of making money. You can't ask for more advertising or get a higher price for it and you certainly can't ask for the end user to pay for the content - none of this works. You have to find other ways of funding quality content - but what?
Take a traditional magazine with its crew of journalists, editors and minions and expect it to run in the same way on the web - without a print cash cow behind it - and the result is bankruptcy. The alternative of getting the journalists to accept a pay cut or write faster isn't an option either. The sad fact is that the income stream from even a successful web site cannot support the full time employees it would need for quality content. Perhaps it really is the case that they days of the professional non-fiction writer are numbered.
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