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Devaluing wine writing: the Internet’s dark side

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Jo Diaz called yesterday to ask if I’d seen an article she came across called “The Internet devalues everything it touches.” I immediately interpreted the word “devalues” in the moral sense: to lesson or annul the value, importance, etc. of. [from my Webster’s] As in this quote from a woman who had been psychologically abused by her husband: P. certainly tried to devalue me. He said many nasty uncalled for things…

I told Jo I don’t think the Internet devalues things any more than everyday life does, but then Jo explained that she was talking about the other definition of “devalue,” the one that’s usually connected to money and currencies. So I read the article, which you can too on ZDNet’s website.

The author, Tom Foremski, starts by saying the Internet’s prime impact on the economy is “a strong deflationary trend.” This is because Internet apps are “powerful in the sense of dramatically reducing the costs of doing business.” This eventually leads to “a continual erosion in the value of products and services” in which costs topple and salaries for many jobs are correspondingly reduced to the point of nothingness.

Foremski offers examples: call centers being shifted overseas. The plunging cost of buying music. Internet-based alternatives to traditional telephone and television providers. And, as we all know, “Newspaper and magazines are available online for free.” After citing the case of craigslist and how it has nuked the classified ad business, Foremski returns to his thesis: “Again, we see the power of the Internet and how it devalues everything it touches.” He even blames the Internet for the worldwide economic collapse:

Internet based technologies…enabled loans to be made more quickly, which enabled the transfer of risk to third-parties thousands of miles away, and which enabled massive amounts of speculation in a diversity of markets from oil to real-estate. The whole process was made more efficient through the use of IDBTs [Internet-based disruptive business technologies].

Foremski is not making a value judgment on this, nor does he provide solutions. “[I]t just is what it is, just as gravity just is – neither good or bad.”

Right after I read this, Tom Wark’s latest post from Fermentation came in, where he blogs about Appellation America charging an annual subscription fee ($49.95) after being free for so long. Appellation America was, of course, created for the Internet. Tom wondered if the people who read AA now will actually pay for the privilege of doing so in the future, and wrote that he doesn’t think most will. “The fact is, I think, that the availability of free content is more persuasive to people than is the quality of content.”

I think Tom is right, and I say so sadly. The Internet’s premise and spirit is freedom. It was created as a way to share information (which is content), and by now, after 20 years, the public has become addicted to free stuff on their computers. They don’t want to pay for anything, unless it lets them get more free stuff, faster (which is why people buy new computers and updated software).

Appellation America is taking a bold, although financially necessary move. I know most of the writers and they are, as Tom wrote, “one of the most impressive collections of wine writers ever placed under one masthead.” But they can’t write for free and nobody should expect them to. The fact is, Dan Berger or Alan Goldfarb or Michael Lasky have more wine knowledge, judgment and understanding in their little fingers than all the wine bloggers put together. (OMG, am I going to get heat over that comment!) If Appellation America eventually can’t make it, what are we to conclude? That knowledge is defunct, wisdom unprofitable, judgment irrelevant, and, yes, truth devalued.

Maybe, just maybe, Appellation America will show just the opposite. Good luck.

By the way…

This is completely irrelevant, but did you see the “leaked” videos of Michael Jackson performing “They don’t care about us?” He’s still pretty exciting, but he wasn’t exactly busting Thriller moves. More like a 50-year old guy with arthritis.

  1. “The fact is, I think, that the availability of free content is more persuasive to people than is the quality of content.”

    Well….**DUH**…. otherwise, how would PR and advertising work? I’m not taking a dig at advertising here, I’m only saying that we’ve been conditioned for decades to be persuaded by content that’s free!

  2. “The fact is, Dan Berger or Alan Goldfarb or Michael Lasky have more wine knowledge, judgment and understanding in their little fingers than all the wine bloggers put together.” Here you go ahead, Steve, saying something is a “fact” when it is simply your opinion.
    You are a great writer, and I understand your point, but when you get off on these tangents you lose a lot of credibility.
    PS. I’m a blogger, and I was drinking wine when you were still in diapers.

  3. Praising someone at anothers expense also devalues, devalues credibility and intent. While I agree with the bulk of this post, that last little swipe and gross generalization reduced it to just another rant against bloggers….

  4. Yeah Steve, undobtedly you are going to take some heat for the “little fingers” comment. Like John’s – no less misguided for being so predictable.

    “IN MY OPINION, it is a fact that Berger, Goldfarb and Lasky have more knowledge…” Is that explicit statement what’s missing? Is it necessary? Why? Perhaps some just have less difficulty distinguishing editorial opinion from statements of fact.

    Fact is, in my opinion Steve is probably right – would be definitively correct if he had added a caveat of “…all the new wine bloggers put together.” OK we’re all “new” but I’m defining new as people who did not come to blogging in 2004 after a successful 15-20 year career in wrtiting about wine.

    PS: my dad was investing when I was in diapers, but he doesn’t fancy himself an investment expert, even after recently completing a course in financial advising.

    Steve: all internet content is not created equal. Some is worth paying for. Most is not. That’s fact, masquerading as opinion.

  5. John, Samantha. It’s not “my opinion” that the writers I mentioned have more knowledge etc. than a younger blogger could ever have. That’s what experience is all about. Today’s bloggers will become the Dan Bergers of tomorrow, if they stick to it. That’s not to demean the passion, integrity or intelligence of today’s bloggers, which I don’t doubt for a second. It’s simply to state a fact: Dan has been studying wine for many decades, while most of today’s bloggers have studied it for a few years. So my comments were not a “rant.”

  6. “Dan has been studying wine for many decades, while most of today’s bloggers have studied it for a few years.” — The richness with which Berger, Goldfarb, and Lasky write, which is every bit as good as yours, Steve, is what is worth valuing.

    You knew, as you wrote, that younger writers would take issue with not yet having that credibility. They’ll have it in another 20 years… That’s what building credibility is all about. As beauty fades, wisdom is made. Or, as my grandmother always used to say to me, “Age before beauty.”

    And, finally, I want to know how old John is, because Steve and I aren’t in the spring chicken category (no offense Steve, as those birthdays creep up on both of us each year).

    Thanks for a great read, Steve.

  7. I will miss the free content on Appellation America, but it will be worth it for me to subscribe at the very least on a semi-regular basis. And I’m cheap! I love their approach, which differs from many outlets that are blatantly commercial. Nowhere on Appellation America do you see wine pushed as a lifestyle product with the accompanying lifestyle products sold to generate revenue. (Yes, I am aware the editorial staff at WE is a vastly different entity than the business end of the magazine, but both coexist in the same space.) It’s about the vines and the dirt, and Clark Smith is there as a sort of ring master expounding savory bits of science at every turn.

    As you say, Appellation America’s writers put the rest of the internet to shame. While that will ruffle some feathers, it’s true. Blogging is a good enterprise for the enthusiast with a bit of free time. But amateurs like myself can’t compete with folks who are wine professionals when they present content as they do on Appellation America. I’m hoping this attempt to monetize is successful because they really are presenting high quality content that is unavailable through other sources.

  8. One has to look at the nature of the information being provided. The “knowledge” being imparted by those Grand Old Men is of relatively little value in the wine/winery marketplace if there are other channels. Wine writers are writing about wine, for god’s sake, an inconsequential product. Now if you are offering the public in depth coverage of financial related to political news and commentary, as the Wall Street Journal is, it seems much more probable that the provider can charge, particularly if there is a tangible publication in the mix.

  9. Lew Purdue’s model at Wine Industry Insight would seem to follow that of WSJ. He is uncovering data about the business of wine and when real money is involved in a venture then those in the money chain will pay something to keep abreast of such developments.

  10. Hey, I am older than all the bloggers put together. So, John, let’s leave age out of it.

    And I am sure hopeful that no blogger ever becomes another Dan Berger–so Steve’s comments do have a certain application.

    John, my 95-year old mother was drinking wine when you were in diapers. And today she drinks my wine so she knows a thing or two. I tell her and she agrees so she must be a pretty smart old gal. I gather from your website that your daughter is the wine person and you are the numbers person. Nothing wrong in that, of course. I wish I had it so good. I am both at my own stand.

    Age, however, has nothing to do with it. If you find fault in Steve’s argument, feel free to point out a few bloggers with the “knowledge” of Dan Berger. On second thought, please do not show us another Dan Berger. One is more than enough.

  11. Free is obviously not going to be something sustainable. Some will have to jump ship onto the dry land of pay-for-content sooner rather than later. However, there will be a key moment when you see many online services moving to a pay-for model because they cannot exist any longer otherwise. From there it’s up to the job they have done up until that point. Of course, there’s always the dilemma of new entrants taking advantage of the collapse and moving in with more free content for as long as they can sustain.

  12. Tom: I wonder how Lew Purdue is doing, financially.

  13. Steve,

    I think Tom Foremski saw Dave Chappelle’s skit on the Internet one too many times (“The Internet is a Dirty Place”). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s pretty funny – the Internet is a mall with farm animals, Ron Jeremy, pickpockets, etc. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. A lot of the Internet is muddied with laymens and wannabes, yet the true spirit of the Web was created by scientists to “share” information, and verify and critique the work of themselves and their peers. Why can’t we wine writers/bloggers/geeks do the same?

  14. Ron Jeremy! lol. If he was a wine, what would it be?

  15. Berger is one of a few wine writers who actually 1) took V&E classes and 2) made his own wine.
    Wine is a consumable meant to be enjoyed, but in order to comment intelligently on the product (and make judgments about it) you have to have more going for you than just years of drinking.

  16. Arthur, do you think any of the following ever made wine? George Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Andre Simon, Nathan Chroman, Bob Thompson, etc. etc.? If they did, I’m not aware of it — and they’re among the greatest wine writers in the English language.

  17. I do not know for certain either, Steve, but skilled writing is one thing and knowing your subject matter is another.
    Because the modern wine industry relies on science and because a lot of PR invokes certain science-based methodology, a wine critic needs to have some understanding of these things – whether formal or scrupulous self-study.

  18. Arthur: So I guess the best wine writers are lab chemists!

  19. NO, Steve, that is not what I am saying and you you know that.

  20. I’ve enjoyed AA content on occasion and I’ve raised an eyebrow at times based on the overly long turgid prose.

    AA won’t succeed or fail based on their writers experience and knowledge of wine. They will succeed or fail based on the content being appealing to an audience, mostly young, mostly savvy, mostly people for whom the names Dan Berger, Alan GoldFarb and Clark Smith mean nothing — that’s not an indictment, just a correlation to who the online audience is.

    They get a ton of traffic. I hope that’s at least in part based on content and not all related to SEO based on product queries.

    Anybody in and around wine content online should wish them well.

    Jeff

  21. Maybe it has to do with the other part of the Internet, the commercial part, where the most powerful words are “Free Shipping” & “Coupon Code”.

  22. Clark Smith and Alan Goldfarb have sat in my house and tasted with me by the hour. They are very smart people. Dan Berger and I are close friends who trade friendly barbs and smiles and hugs. We match each other intensity and in opinion-delivery. These folks, and others at AA have given us an exceptional amount of very good, reliable content.

    What they do not do is offer the kind of continuous flow and analysis that one gets in magazines like WS or WE in their online phases. For AA to make the transition from free source whose income stream comes from winery advertising and wine sales to a subscription-based site is not going to a slam dunk.

    We don’t know how big their overhead is, what kind of nut they need to crack in order to maintain themselves. We do not even know whether their ad and wine sales revenues provide a useful leg up or not. And, we have yet to see a content-based publication be in the wine sales business.

    The move to fee-for-words, when you have been giving those words away for free, is going to cost them a hell of a lot of traffic. But, it is the kind of traffic that must not have been paying the bills. Jeff asks truly operative questions above. We will know the answers soon enough.

  23. Thom Calabrese says:

    Until I see something truly unique that can’t be gotten for free, why would I pay? No offense to anyone trying to make a buck, but there is so much great free content out there. There will always be someone new to fill the void left by people leaving or growing tired of not making any money.
    I think it keeps things fresh and from getting stale.
    That’s just my opinion, no charge of course!

  24. Breakfast at Wimbledon is over for today, so I can snatch a bit more sleep. Nothing like getting up at 530 on a holiday to watch tv. But, that let’s me check in here for a minute.

    Mr. Calabrese’s point about free content is correct but only goes so far. AA may not have the right content to draw tens of thousands of subscribers, but it will get a some support from folks who understand that there is no competitive content of the same quality on the Internet. Yes, anyone can write essays about several hundred AVAs, but can they keep them current? Can they stay up to date about all the wineries operating there? Can they offer an array of professional writers of the caliber who write for AA?

    I would submit that the answer is “no” on every count. Will that be enough to keep AA viable? I have my doubts, but AA also knows its limits under its current format and spots on the leopard can change on the Internet.

    Still, if AA goes away, we will have lost a wonderful resource that is widely used and admired. Mr. Calabrese may not feel the need to pay a small amount for such a resource. Some of us will feel very differently.

  25. Trouble is there may not be enough Charlie Olkens out there who will pay 50 bucks to follow informed commentary on appellations. But who knows. Like for-pay niche newsletters, both virtual and printed, a large enough number of people whose livelihood depends on keeping up with knowledge about grape growing regions, coupled with a band of enthusiasts, could provide adequate revenues.

    Countering this is Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that “information wants to be free.”

    The digital age, Chris Anderson argues in Wired, is exerting an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things “made of ideas.” Anderson does not consider this a passing trend. Rather, he seems to think of it as an iron law: “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.”

    http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free

  26. Tom

    I’ve been following Anderson’s writing on Free and Freemium for quite some time.
    Freemium has been demonstrated to be the most successful model.

  27. Arthur–

    Do you view what WS and WA are doing to be Free and Fremium? Seems to me that WS comes pretty close with its free push newsletters and such.

  28. Charlie,

    No, I don’t.

    By the technical definition, WS and WA do not operate a Freemium model for their product.
    They each offer some free content, but this is not consistent with the three or four variations of the Freemium model – by my reading of the relevant literature on the subject.

  29. For god’s sake, Steve. What a ridiculous article. You are fast becoming the Rush Limbaugh of wine commentary. Or the Perez Hilton.

    There are 1000s of environmental, architectural, literary, political, and even gardening blogs. Do they harp on their brethren? Do they, individually, anguish over multiple points of view? No. The more the merrier is their healthy mantra.

    In the wine world, however, there is this noisy little coterie of wine writers fighting a vain, rearguard action against a new generation. It might surprise you to learn that Robert Parker began as ‘know-nothing’ lawyer, Neal Rosenthal, too, began as a lawyer fed up with his life, Dan Berger began as a sports writer, Clive Coates began as an apprentice wine merchant…. The list goes on and on. One by one the wine ‘titans’ of today started with nothing but an ambition to write about their passion. How silly it is to judge ‘wine bloggers’ by the very internet standards you disparage, that of the immediacy of today’s available content.

    Get a grip. Let the blogosphere evolve. After all, your content is these days a mere litany of tiresome complaint, retreads. You’ve made a cottage industry of slamming wine blogs as though you had the slightest idea of their content. You don’t.

    Do you actually have a new idea? I’d love to hear it.

  30. Ken,

    I think it is you who needs to get a grip. You seem to be overreacting. Steve was and has been offering some observations by others on the dynamics of the new Internet technologies. You distort the commentary on the blogosphere. There are many folks out there lamenting what is happening to the main stream media while also acknowledging the contributions by bloggers. I don’t see where Mr. H is engaging in all the rants you accuse him of. He is reporting news about cyberspace as it affects his industry. To me, he provideds a vital BLOGGING service.

  31. My hunch is that Lew Perdue is doing just fine, primarily because he is providing information that is not easily found elsewhere on the Internet or in print. Similarly, the fate of AA’s decision to go paid will hinge on whether they can provide editorial content that is unique.

  32. I don’t know how Lew Perdue is doing, but I believe at the moment he is a one-man show, whereas AA has a whole stable of writers they have to compensate (I assume they are paying their writers, but these days, maybe I’m wrong), so I think that one’s a little apples and oranges.

    The bottom line is this: are people still willing to pay someone who brings together a large group of talented and skilled writers, pushes an editorial angle, and perhaps also engages in some professional editing, which sometimes even the best writers need (in small amounts)? I believe the answer is yes, but I also know that it’s a hard road to travel in today’s world. Obviously this very personally affects Steve (and me), but even if it didn’t, I don’t think it will be a better world if people are not willing to pay money for good writing and editing.

    For a nice response to the “information wants to be free” line of Wired (is Wired free btw? I have to claim ignorance on that one, but I imagine you have to pay for it at a newsstand at least), check out Malcolm Gladwell: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/07/06/090706crbo_books_gladwell?yrail.

  33. Dear John-

    “PS. I’m a blogger, and I was drinking wine when you were still in diapers.”

    I’m NOT a blogger, but I WAS drinking wine when I was still in diapers. So there. I had a French wet nurse. After every feeding I got a little teaspoon of wine. It was only a modest village wine at first, but by the time I was big enough to take the nurses blouse off myself, she had moved me up to the lesser classified growths, and a little crystal goblet had replaced the teaspoon. It was the perfect childhood. And adolescence. And puberty. As much as Madeleine and I still enjoy mealtimes, I’ll never top those first tender winedrinking memories.

    Steve, keep em riled up.
    Clark, Dan, et al- I’m subscribing. Just as soon as you get your “subscribe now” button working!

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