No free lunch, no free content

Nation newspaper

Residents of Tala Town, Machakos County, savour the new-look Saturday Nation on August 1, 2020. This was the first edition of the new-look Nation.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Traditionally, people have been happy with someone selling their eyeballs in exchange for content.
  • The trouble is that people are spending more time on their phones than they do on TV or newspapers.

There is no such thing as free content. You probably didn’t write out a cheque, but you paid. The government maybe took the money from you and gave it to some corporation to give you the content. Or wrote a law, or regulation, requiring you to pay licence fees to a so-called public broadcaster.

If, for real, you didn’t pay a coin, then the content is not the product, as they say. You are.

Traditionally, people have been happy with someone selling their eyeballs in exchange for content. So you watched the ads on TV or viewed them in a newspaper, somebody paid the newspaper company and thereby subsidised the content.

The trouble is that people are spending more time on their phones than they do on TV or newspapers. They want to catch up with the news on those devices and they do not necessarily want to be bothered with advertising.

Interacting “for free”

Besides, when an advertiser wants to show you something, they don’t come to Nation, even though it is from our site that you reading or watching the news. They go to internet giants such as Google and Facebook.

These giants have built huge audiences by offering “free” search or social interaction services. But they have been reading you and observing you; they have deployed the cleverest robots which never sleep to follow your every click. And they can go to the advertiser and say: “He wants to buy a second-hand crusher.” And they follow you some more around the internet, with a crusher tied to your digital leg: Wherever you turn, you find a second-hand crusher grinning at you, at a very good price. 

And because hundreds of millions of us are on their networks interacting “for free”, they have a huge pool of crusher seekers who cost next to nothing to serve; they can offer advertising at very cheap rates. So, advertisers are following them around like puppies begging to play catch. Big Tech is, therefore, in a position to dictate terms to website owners and pay them a pittance.

By sucking up the bulk of advertising dollars and driving down the cost of online advertising, the tech giants broke the traditional model of advertising as a principal source of financing for content creators. The game has shifted in dramatic and traumatic ways for many publishers; the revenue rug has been pulled from under their feet. They are going through a rough time, time to readjust their businesses, often by shrinking their operations with painful job losses and closure of marquee media brands.

Media companies and content creators can give their undivided attention to the consumers of their talent. And they can exercise their freedoms in a more robust manner, with just the sensitivities of their customers to worry about, rather than a whole galaxy of other parties to fight off.

Am I saying advertising is a bad thing? No. Am I saying advertisers are bad people? Absolutely not. Am I saying advertising will disappear? Not a chance. But I am saying that, in the current scheme of things, the bulk of the advertising money does not end up with the content creator and, therefore, the creator can’t continue creating unless an alternative source of revenue is found to sustain its operations.

Exclusive content

I am also saying that Big Tech, by being too clever, has killed its own golden goose. Many, especially the youth, are reportedly unprepared to pay for content online. With all due respect, the world does not owe anyone free content.

The idea that an investor would put up billions of shillings a year to offer us free services doesn’t make sense — unless he is doing CSR, which means he has another source of income to keep the enterprise going.

So, our world is going to change radically in the coming days. But for the better. While the bulk of the content on offer will continue to be free, a bit of it will not. I see publishers in Africa allowing their loyal consumers free access to content on a metered basis: You read and share a certain number of stories absolutely free and then, at some point, you are required to subscribe to the platform.

I also see a fee being charged for the most exclusive content, though a very small one.
This returns power to the consumer: Citizens can shape the agenda of the country and the relationship between journalist and audience will regain its nobility. It will also result in an improvement in the quality and professionalism of the content process. Why? If your content is not up to scratch, you will not survive.

It also gives citizens a powerful tool to shape the destiny of their country. The megaphone of the big media will be at the disposal of the ordinary man more firmly. They can participate in shaping the media agenda and in determining how journalism is organised and practised. For me, this is a marriage truly made in heaven.


The violence in Githurai on Wednesday points to a bad, Kenyan habit which must be killed once and for all. 

We can’t have another violent election. Whoever was responsible for this nonsense must be found and prosecuted. Anybody fomenting violence must not take part in the election.