IIcan't let go of the “value of content” subject. It's like a riddle where everyone has heard the words yet nobody can quite pull together the clues into something meaningful.

First case in point: Last night's panel discussion at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Cut through the pleasantries and the platitudes, and here's what executives from the Washington Post, ABC News, Time, Bloomberg, and Journalism Online said:

  • ABC News' David Westin: ”There's been a lot of journalism that's been done over the years that's not worth a whole lot. You could have gotten it anywhere.”

  • The normal strategy of news organisations is to cover the same news everyone else does – yet do it better.

  • ABC News spent more than US$1 million and committed the time of 20 staffers to cover Hurricane Gustav in 2008, to which Westin admitted ”we could have played the same footage from the last hurricane and no one would have noticed.”

  • Time's Josh Tyrangiel called for a ”doctrine of indispensability” for news providers. Westin said success can be defined by answering the following question: ”What can we provide that others can't?”

  • There was a general consensus that people will pay for original enterprise journalism.

  • Bloomberg's Norman Pearlstine warned that journalism is ”at risk of having an audience like that of classical music.” That is to say, an influential and affluent audience willing to pay – but a small audience nonetheless.

So, we had better drop commodity journalism and pack journalism, focus intently on what differentiates us, or we'll have a smaller and smaller audience. If that means scrapping the rules of journalism, so be it.

Second case in point: A marvelous blog posting today by internet and sports entrepreneur Mark Cuban who commented on Chris Anderson's soon-to-be-released book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Cuban makes the distinction between “free” and “freely distributed.” And the music industry is his example.

The music industry has spent 10 years competing with free. They cut their organisations “to the bone, keeping just those they hope and pray will know best how to guide them through the world of free.” According to Cuban, those survivors use free as a “weapon” and “asset” to leverage into “something more.”

Said Cuban: “(T)he music industry realizes that they have to offer quite a bit of music for free. What they have learned, however, is that they don't have to allow it to be freely distributed. They can and do control where it's delivered. You can have it for free, if that's how you want it, but you have to come get it where we want you to get it. On our websites. ... If you want it for free, you have to go through the exhausting effort of clicking to our website and giving us something in value in return. It may be your attention. It may be your interest. It may be a referral of your e-mail address. We give you something free (and) you give us something that costs you nothing.

“The music is often free, but it is never freely distributed,” he added.

This relates to newspapers in that they need to be “the best source for breaking news about the topics I care about,” Cuban said in his blog. “They need to make sure I don't have the choice of getting it anywhere else but where they dictate. If they can't make their content stand out from the open source masses and convince enough people to transact with them in a way that makes them money, they don't deserve to exist.”

So, “free” in its most abstract form is too simple a choice for Mark Cuban. If you know how to strategically use “free” – I suppose, for newspapers, is how to we regain control and what, precisely, do we want from the eyeballs on our free content.

What I take from these two cases is that nothing short of relentless differentiation will allow newsmedia brands to survive in the long-term. The only issue is whether we have the transformational bandwidth to make this transition before we burn through the capital of today's media companies. Whether for-profit companies are the best entities for this relentless differentiation is an academic conversation; they are the ones standing today.

As for “free,” if we're schlepping content into the ether for no damned good reason, I suppose Cuban would argue that's silly. How do we make “free” more of a weapon?

The “value of content” will continue to be a reverberating theme for all media. We're getting closer and closer to answers.