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It's inevitable that the pendulum will swing back the other way. I just can't imagine that the erosion will continue much longer...

Well, free content isn't really free. By simply showing up, you're giving the publisher something: a metric, an ad click, or -- more importantly -- data.

There's money in data mining. A reader comes to a site. Let's call it OldMedia.com. OldMedia's servers push a cookie to the reader's browser and queries to see what other cookies are there. Reader selects an article or two, maybe looks at a sponsored feature, and goes away.

The visit's metrics are now transmitted to a centralized service -- we'll call it Tripleclick. From this session, Tripleclick now knows the following things about the so-far anonymous reader:

* IP address
* Geographical location
* What kind of computer they use
* The last website the reader viewed
* What content interested the reader
* What ads they might have seen
* Any data points they might have entered while visiting OldMedia.com (forms and so on)
* Where the reader went next

All very interesting, but anonymous. Now Tripleclick sifts through the other cookies OldMedia.com gathered during the session. It finds several from other Tripleclick-affiliated sites. All the session data is combined into a single profile. We get a much better look at how this anonymous reader behaves. This is much better than research data about how the reader *says* the will behave.

Gather enough sessions, and you get a detailed look into the interests and response patterns of this reader.

But here's the money shot: While collating the anonymous reader's session data, Tripleclick discovers that he or she made a credit card purchase at an affiliated site three weeks ago.

The data is no longer anonymous. And someone will happily pay for it.

There are ways to defeat cookies, but most people don't bother. You give valuable data to every site you visit.

It goes much deeper, of course. If the no-longer-anonymous reader belongs to a Tripleclick-affiliated social network, the reader's profile will also include friends, professional interests, political leanings, and all the stuff we put out there. The CIA couldn't do as good a job gathering intelligence. Unless they're Tripleclick customers, too.

This technology isn't inherently good or bad -- it depends how it's used. Tripleclick could recognize a reader upon arrival at a site, for instance. It knows the reader likes modern furniture. The site summons relevant content and dynamically rearranges its homepage accordingly. Or displays a highly relevant ad, rather than something which just annoys the reader.

But my point is that "free" content isn't free. There's always a transaction.

I see a lot of opportunity for innovation within the news distribution system, although I'm unfamiliar with the financing and macro-economics of it all.
If mainstream media's gradual embrace of new media over the last year is any indication, we'll see greater movement this year.

The publicly funded news is great here, but isn't recognized because it doesn't have awareness reach potential like the BBC, CBC (Canada), ARD or ZDF (Germany), or similar scenarios in other countries...which of course also have private sector counterparts.

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