Pay-per-Content Versus Free: Char James-Tanny and Bill Swallow at the STC Summit in Dallas, #stc10

In this video, I asked Char James-Tanny and Bill Swallow to comment on the controversy over free versus pay-per-content models online, especially as it applies to STC content with the Body of Knowledge, Special Interest Groups (SIGs), and other information products.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Amy Reyes

    Excellent videocasts from the STC conference! I enjoyed all of them, and they make me want to attend next year’s conference (I’ve never been to an STC conference). I also have a personal blog, so your insights and questioning on blogging (particularly internal linking and pay-per-content) were interesting to me on a personal level as well. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

    • Tom Johnson

      Hi Amy, thanks for the feedback on the videocasts. The STC Summit is a great conference to attend. Next year it will be in Sacramento. If you attend it, let me know. Maybe I could interview you for a videocast. :)

  • Chris McQueen

    Char is my hero! When I was learning AuthorIT her “free” content helped me so much. I know that this might be an issue to STC, but I can’t imagine a world where free content wasn’t available at some level; the web is arguable built upon it.

    If STC is looking for revenue models, I would suggest they look to the eLearning Guild’s model. It sounds like they are trying to do that, but is it too little too late?

    One thing that the eLearning Guild has going for it is levels of knowledge; certain content is free, then their are levels beyond that. eLearning Guild has webinars, articles, and conferences with varying levels of access. IEEE has these levels as well. iTunes has these levels (you can get a lot of free songs and podcasts through Apple).

    Final thought, a paraphrase of a Tim O’Reilly quote; “companies should be creating more value for users than they’re capturing.” I would say the same is true of the STC. If the Society can provide more value than the price of the ‘Body of Knowledge”, they’ll do fine.

    • Tom Johnson

      Chris, one of these days we’ll have to meet. Thanks for giving your thoughts on this topic. I wasn’t aware of the eLearning Guild model, so I’ll have to check it out. I also liked your Tim O’Reilly quote about providing more value than one is capturing. I do think that it’s a viable model.

      By the way, I missed TechSmith’s booth among the vendors in the Expo. I wish they could have been there, but as I understand it there was another competing conference that they attended instead. Oh well.

      • Chris McQueen

        Indeed, next time I’m out to see my folks in Utah we’ll have to grab a hot chocolate.

        I know skipping the show was a tough choice for TechSmith; hopefully we can see some growth in the STC conference attendance and make a case to be there again. Thanks for the coverage of the show, it was really nice to hear some of the conversations.

        • Tom Johnson

          It made me realize that TechSmith’s main audience isn’t technical communicators. There was a general lack of Summit sessions on video, and TechSmith’s absence in the expo reinforced the idea to me that the number of technical communicators who produce video tutorials is pretty small. So who is TechSmith’s main audience? What conference did TechSmith attend instead?

  • Andrea Wenger

    Terrific interview. As Bill Swallow says, “controlled quality of content” is key. If STC is going to charge for online content, the content must be carefully vetted. As far as the BoK is concerned, the basics should be available for free, and the more in-depth material available for a fee. Hook readers with free content and an engaging writing style — then ask them to pay for more once you’ve sold them on the value.

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks for commenting, Andrea. Another question is how the STC will find writers willing to create substantive content for free behind an STC paywall. In other words, my motivation to write an article — that another group receives compensation for — drastically diminishes if I know the other group is profiting off of my work, while I get nothing in return. I think Wikipedia works in part because it’s a completely free model. I’m interested to see how the Body of Knowledge plays out. I do want to see it succeed.

      Apart from models with the STC, I’ve thought about pay versus free models for podcasts. Every once in a while I think I’ll start up a pro and lite model for my podcast, but that idea never seems to take off, and very few podcasts are successful with it.

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  • Paul

    Who did that shoddy camera work? :) Great interview with some great STC members!

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks for being such a good camera man, Paul. You were really helpful.

  • Andrea Wenger

    Tom, good point about writers being reluctant to contribute if they won’t profit but the Society will. What if your name were associated with the content you provided, along with a link to your blog? Would the publicity and recognition be fair compensation? Another option would be to treat the work as a charitable contribution that you could deduct from your taxes (in the U.S., at least — not sure what the laws are in other countries).

    • Tom Johnson

      Both forms of compensation you mention would probably work for most people, especially the first. I think a lot of people would love to play a content curator role similar to the guide role on It’s not just raw content creation here. It’s the compilation of portal like views into an aggregation of content on a specific theme.

  • Andrea Wenger

    I should add that I’d expect all BoK content to be free to members, since it’s generated by members.

    • Tom Johnson

      I’m sure of that as well.