Wednesday, October 14, 2009

news may not want to be free, but people want (and deserve) free news

There is, apparently, a "news wants to be free" contingent. I learned this because I was accused of being a member of this contingent over at Beat the Press.

There is no definition of the "news wants to be free" contingent on that blog or in the Boston Globe piece by Lou Ureneck that started the whole conversation. As near as I can tell, though, Ureneck attributes this stance to people who believe that there's no putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to online news content--that it's far too late to institute paywalls or micropayments now.

If this is the stance of the "news wants to be free" contingent, then count me in. I don't buy Ureneck's comparison of online news content to cable television. "Are you doubtful?" he asks. "I remember when television also was free."

Nah, I don't buy the analogy. The slow but steady transition to paid television content was a master stroke that cannot be replicated with online news. Cable's success lay in its ability to offer something far superior to free content; to offer pure, easy entertainment (fluff mixed with filler mixed with news channels; if cable was only news, we'd never be willing to pay); to leverage our willingness to pay to be entertained; and, most importantly, to rig up a corporate monopoly on that entertainment. In most parts of the U.S., if you want cable you get fewer then three providers to choose from, and they all cost about the same and offer about the same features.

News outlets, thank christ, could never manage the same sort of monopoly, even if the Big Five news agencies do end up buying all of the major news outlets. There will still be independent sources, alternative journalism, free public radio streams, underground journalism, forums, blogs...and platforms we can't even imagine yet.

Here's an example of why it won't work. My news outlet of choice is currently the New York Times. If the Times decided to charge--even micropayments, even a dime or a nickel per visit--I would take my readership elsewhere. I might go to CNN, and if CNN charged, then I'd head to the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe or, god forbid, USA Today. If all of the major news outlets started to charge, then I'd head to the Huffington Post or BoingBoing. If those outlets started to charge, then...well, you get the point.

And I'm not alone. There are millions of people just like me who will refuse to pay. There will be others who will pay in order to access news that they will then distribute to others free of charge. Media moguls might stop some of these resisters, but they'll never stop them all. It would take nothing short of a carefully orchestrated international conspiracy--every outlet deciding to charge the same amount, at the same time, for the same content--for things to be otherwise.

Besides--and it's strange to have to remind Ureneck, a lifelong newspaper man and the chair of Boston University's journalism department, of this--newspapers have never made the lion's share of their revenue off of reader subscriptions. It's always been sponsorship, ads, and corporate funds that kept the lights on. The fact that advertising no longer pays does not give news organizations license to suddenly turn to readers to pay the delinquent bills. It only means that new corporate marketing models become necessary.

You should not, contrary to Ureneck's strange and irrational assertion, assume that I want reporters to starve or their children to have to drop out of school. In fact, as a former newspaper reporter whose paper closed when ad revenues declined, I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of the print journalist. But Ureneck should know that wishing things were otherwise does not make them so.

It would be passing strange to assert that "news wants to be free." It's less strange to assert that people want their news to be free. Less strange still to assert that democracy wants news to be free, despite the capitalist tendency to charge. Even less strange to assert that in a free, democratic society dedicated to democratic ideals, more news, made more freely available to a broader public, is better than the alternative.

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