Free is a very ambiguous and imprecise term these days. Many of our everyday consumables that we often view as free (tap water, BBC etc) aren’t really free of a cost, yet their almost comforting pervasiveness means that we barely consider a financial cost for their consumption. It’s a commonly held assumption that as a good becomes increasingly common and available, its price will reduce to almost zero. The most famous example of this is of course, the aforementioned tap water. Essentially (almost) free, businesses can only charge for water by either associating it with fashion/purity/exoticism etc, or by ‘adding value’ with the likes of flavoured or vitamin-enriched water.

Much has been made in recent weeks about the cost (or not) of content on the internet. The internet changed the face of consumption of information and other forms of content across the globe because by its far reaching nature, it enabled millions of people to consume a piece of information in seconds, without such obstructive concepts such as printing or shipping.

A recent survey by Telindus (covered in the Guardian) showed that 43% of UK respondents said they never paid for digital media, regardless of whether they should or not. It also found that nearly one in five people surveyed believed that material was effectively in the public domain once it had been posted online. This kind of widespread acceptance of what is effectively piracy means that a multitude of industries are now quite intently looking at their business and distribution models.

Lionel Barber, editor of the FT is claiming: “How these online payment models work and how much revenue they can generate is still up in the air; but I confidently predict that within the next 12 months, almost all news organisations will be charging for content.”

Ashley Norris has made some very interesting insight into Mr. Barber’s comments on his blog. Firstly he points out that it’s considerably easier for a publication like the FT with its executive readership and strong commercial ties, to charge for content than a paper like the Guardian with its readership of power to the people communists and people like me who just like the blogs.

Secondly many formerly fledging alternative news sites like the Huffington Post have now evolved to be far more similar to traditional old-world media than they had perhaps originally intended, with a considerably reduced amount of blogging going on within their remits.

So according to Ashley the two things making it hard for media organisations to charge for content are:

“Blogs – Walled content gardens could actually spark a renaissance in blogging, especially when coupled with tools like Posterous (which works incredibly well with Twitter), as bloggers simply cut and paste (either physically or intellectually) subscription content from media sources and publish it freely.

“The BBC – The corp is still going to offer all its content for free, so readers can still access one of the world’s premium news sources for nothing. It makes paying that few quid each month to The Guardian looks a lot less appealing.

“Here’s an idea for Brown, Cameron or whoever is running the UK next year. Develop a subscription model for the BBC’s online content. It would generate income, give the commercial sector of the UK media a level playing field and an opportunity to move forward and it would enable the government/corporation to rethink how it funded the BBC.”

What do you think of both Lionel and Ashley’s standpoints?

I for one will massively re-evaluate my media consumption habits if many of the online outlets i read start charging for content. Are some of the powerhouses of the online content industry heading for a fall if they start to charge for their media? If it remains free, will the BBC became some kind of all-encompassing Orwellian one-stop shop for all online news?

Alex Smiddy (@AlexSmiddy)