Does Information Want to Be Paid For?

Apr 17, 09 | 8:54 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The old news media believes that all of the stuff it’s been giving away for free for a decade or more it ought now get the reader to shell out for. My friends Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz (Gordon is on Newser’s advisory board), with long-time cable executive Leo Hindery, are starting something called Journalism Online (a terrible name), which hopes to be an iTunes-like store for, well, journalism.

Here’s a brief recap of how publishers originally came to give away their store: The early and fierce Internet mantra on the part of the digital elite was about information wanting to be free. Sharing was the Internet’s singular function. So from the get go, traditional publishers found themselves not only competing with free information, but also wanting to be cool digital guys themselves, and, as well, to get as many “hits” as possible—free, therefore, became everybody’s approach. This was okay until publishers figured out they couldn’t make in online advertising what they used to make in old-fashioned advertising and that the Internet was destroying their profitable businesses.

Hence, the big panic.

The proposition now is that there will be “official” content produced by “official” journalists that will be paid for, existing like an island amid the sea of Internet content, which will be free. The idea is that the former is so evidently more valuable than the latter consumers will line up with their credit cards.

This suggests a future world of bootlegged newspaper articles (presuming anybody in the coming years even wants newspaper articles), and, as well, a new competitive divide. Were MSNBC to put up a paid wall, that would be to CNN’s huge benefit. (The New York Times, presently a free site, makes about three times as much as the Wall Street Journal’s paid site.)

But the larger issue is about confronting people with real questions of value. What is a New York Times story worth on the open market? If you have to pay for it, do you begin to evaluate it differently? Is the Times really that special? If you have to pay for a Times article, do you then realize it doesn’t do the things you’d expect it to do—sheesh, that you still have to read it? (You want me to pay and then expect me to do the work?) Indeed, aren’t you asking people to pay for the old version of journalism, while the beta version, with lots of new features (including doing the reading for you), is free (even if it crashes sometimes)?

(AP Image)

Sure, there’s iTunes, which offers music customers technological ease (peer-to-peer networks still require a level of brain surgery) and freedom from prosecution. Still, iTunes sells a few million songs a month, versus billions of illegal downloads.

In other words, if somebody wants to pay, well, why not? But that’s not going to put your kid through college.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at
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