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Photo: (left to right) Chris Anderson, Gary Hoenig, John Sargent, Alan Murray

Last night’s discussion, Free AND Paid Content: Business Models That Work, hinged on whether consumers of news and books should and will pay for content online. But it became a tense intellectual slugging match between John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishing, and moderator Chris Anderson, most recently the author of “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

“We have not grown up in an atmosphere of free books” — Sargent

Anderson contended that free digital copies could bring books back into the “cultural conversation,” while Sargent held steady as the consistent voice of dissent, expressing a grim forecast for the publishing industry and noting that it’s “hard to imagine books as a growth business.” Not even “freemiums” will work, Sargent said, warning of the “danger of the experimental stage,” in which giving away free books may increase sales the first year and even the second, only to see them disappear completely long-term. “It’s early,” he said. “We need a device or two and we definitely need a new screen.”

Anderson and Sargent were joined by panelists Gary Hoenig, ESPN Publishing’s general manager and editorial director, and Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive online editor of the Wall Street Journal, each of whom provided moderate voices amid Anderson’s proselytizing and Sargent’s foreboding.

Anderson moderated the panel hosted in the Condé Nast building where he works as editor-in-chief of Wired. As the group’s ostensible mediator, he served more as an antagonist to the three panelists, especially Sargent, highlighting the fact that all are generals in a war that seeks to have readers pay for a product that, in many cases, they can get for free.

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