Free Content Isn't Free

| 3/6/2012 10:48:21 AM

Newspapers Down 

The practical and moral implications of erecting a paywall are not easy to untangle. So it’s no surprise that even the big important sources like the New York Times have gone back and forth. Back in September 2007, NYT announced that its entire print edition would be available online free of charge. The risky move made a big splash in the world of online news as other less profitable papers weighed the benefits and costs of following suit.

Like a lot of news junkies, I was delighted by the decision. In fact, the idea of paying for information seemed a little absurd to me at the time. As a student at the University of Minnesota, I had complete access to databases like JSTOR and LexisNexis. I relied on the fact that if I needed a book that Wilson Library or Andersen Library didn’t have, I could order it free of charge through Inter-Library Loan. And a surprising number of assigned readings had the familiar Modern History Sourcebook URL—a huge online database of primary history—free to all.

That the New York Times was also free to online users made perfect sense. The Internet offered free access to dictionaries and encyclopedias—why not newspapers? Why should information and news be reduced to a buyable, sellable product? What did subscription charges and advertising revenue have to do with reporting the news anyway?

Of course, the answer is quite a lot, especially to an industry in crisis. What’s more, it seems the free content party may be coming to an end. Last week, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was erecting a paywall for its online edition, thereby joining the litany of other sources like the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the dozens of local papers owned by Gannett that have already done so. Similarly, broadcasters plan to stream NCAA March Madness tournaments and analysis behind a paywall of their own.

The NYT window itself lasted just over three years. Last year—amidst critical reporting from the Arab Spring, no less—the paper announced the return of its pesky paywall, and that was the beginning of the end. But if smaller publications breathed a sigh of relief, the respite probably didn’t last.

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