Free Content Isn't Free

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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 Timeswas 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 Timesannounced 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.

For a struggling paper or magazine, the less consumers expect to get free content, the better. Newspapers have been hemorrhaging revenue since the late nineties, and it’s difficult to see how a traditional business model can respond to online content. But at the same time, many have become dependent on the very media that so threaten their existence.

Take bloggers. As Kevin Drum argues in Mother Jones, bloggers, like himself, rely on an enormous pool of free online content to glean and contextualize information. It’s a role created by a media landscape that couldn’t possibly be replicated any other way. But it’s also a role that many newspapers and print magazines have embraced, and now may need to preserve.

Even more traditional journalistic tasks are beholden to the Internet. When I was an intern at In These Times back in 2010, we relied on free online content for fact-checking. That academic journals, government databases, and newspapers were digitally at our fingertips made checking accuracy much more efficient and organized. And while In These Times and countless other publications certainly conducted fact-checking before the Internet came around, many of them also had larger staffs then–even whole fact-checking positions. Today, smaller staffs and fewer resources mean efficiency is at a premium, which again makes online all the more essential.

Similarly, the Internet’s rise has enabled and perhaps compelled the explosion in freelance and contract labor in journalism and publishing (not to mention those tricky unpaid internships). And now, proofing, copyediting, and fact-checking are even being outsourced from struggling newsrooms to foreign countries, reports Megan Tady of FAIR Extra.

“A new era of journalism is certainly upon us, where a newspaper simply can’t be successful without an online presence,” she writes. “Many journalists like to think that they’re irreplaceable, while media companies are beginning to think that they’re outsourceable.” In more ways than one, the rise of the Internet is responsible for this crisis, but ironically, the Internet is also necessary for the freelance editing and outsourcing that a lot of papers rely on to stay alive.

And of course, it wasn’t always about survival. The costs of doing business in the new era are wreaking havoc on what used to be essential for good journalism, writes former Inquirer reporter Chris Satullo. “Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive,” he argues. “What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.” 

Newspapers and magazines do have choices, but not many. If more of the big names rebuild their paywalls it may take some of the pressure off smaller and more local publications to provide free content. The alternatives–relying on unpaid labor, scattering newsrooms across the country and overseas, dumping foreign correspondents and bureaus–are not pleasant. The trouble is no one wants to be first to take the plunge. When the London Times imposed a paywall in 2010, they lost ninety percent of their online readership in less than three weeks, apparently proving the theory that online users will simply go somewhere else to avoid paying.

But so far, the New York Times‘ model has fared much better (even as some readers beat the system), and this is good news for smaller sources. If consumers can get over their abrasion to paying for news, and if news sources can get over their fear of asking for it, the Internet may be a far less threatening place for journalism. 

Sources: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Gannett, All Things Digital, Mother Jones, FAIR Extra, Newsworks, PBS, American Journalism Review, The Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, Wired.

Image by SusanLesch, licensed under Creative Commons.

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