Seth Is Wrong On Paid vs Free Journalism

I’ve been writing about thinking critically recently and the Malcolm vs Chris vs Seth thing is great fodder.

I love Malcolm Gladwell’s criticisms of Chris Anderson’s writing here and appreciate Chris’ equally critically minded answer, but I had to take on the genius that is Seth Godin (I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically). Seth’s logic in his comment just didn’t work, imho:

“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.”

First of all, I’ll accept Seth’s premise that in the contest for attention, people produce free content. I mean, I’m doing it here, because Michael Gray’s got a bigger audience than I do.

Second, this contradicts Seth’s following paragraph. When the mainstream media had a monopoly on our attention, why would they have to pay for journalists to make use of that attention? By that logic, Mike should be paying me! (“Hey Mike…” 😉 ).

Seth is making a logical mistake we all know and love: mistaking causation with correlation.

Just because two things occur together (correlation) does not mean one causes the other (causation). I did go dancing this week, but that didn’t make me write this article for Wolf Howl.

Think about it.

It’s not like people didn’t have opinions on tech, health care and marketing before the web. They did.

It’s not that people didn’t share their opinions. They did, around the dinner table.

It’s just that people lacked the means to broadcast their opinions. We had repressed content, if you will.

Sure, now that the tools to unleash those thoughts on the general public are widespread, there’s greater competition for attention. Greater competition drives down prices. I get that.

But you can’t confuse – as Seth has – the two factors that affect the pricing of journalists’ work: the desire for attention (always present; just ask any public relations firm) and the technological ability to distribute content widely.

In summary, we’ve always had the competition for attention going on. Independent and self-published books existed before the web. It’s just that the web brought mass distribution to the masses.

But you didn’t need paid contributors earlier, which Seth ironically points out in highlighting the irony of him, Malcolm and Chris all selling books.

The reason journalists used to get paid was that:

1) They didn’t mostly leverage the branding that broad distribution got you. Only syndicated columnists typically did well enough to have book deals and speaking gigs that made them any decent money. This was wasted branding, imho.

2) They covered stuff that most people would find it a chore to write up, like municipal politics (Oh no, they’re moving trash day to Sunday!) or that others were not vying to report and for which there was thus no competition (eg Watergate).

Nowadays, newspapers are mistakenly filling their pages with wire content. This commodifies them. As I suggested in this article on the risk distribution, the path to saving newspapers is more journalism, not less! More research, less rehash!

I’m a great fan of Seth Godin. His powers of observation are pretty impressive, and his books typically make a strong argument based on business examples he’s observed.

But a risk that is always present in that type of writing is to mistake causation with correlation. Case studies do not prove a general rule. They just show that something occurred in a specific example. You can’t necessarily generalize. (Though I do hear that Search Engine Journal is now paying its writers, Mike… lolz). Seth is making that mistake here.
photo credit: wolfsavard

Gab Goldenberg does seo and also writes on his own blog. He recently spoke at Search Marketing Expo Advanced on the topic of longtail keyword research, and is on the schedule to speak at Affiliate Summit East.

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