Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

I Want It Free

I’ll come right out and say it. I want things on the web for free, especially my news. If I encounter a news site that even wants me to register, I think twice about it.

But I don’t want free just because I’m cheap. I like free because it vastly increases the amount of news and commentary I can access. Only rich people could afford to subscribe to all the journals and magazines I read. It’s why I was a little concerned at a couple of recent announcements.

One was that the New York Times will be putting much of its content behind a pay wall next year. A few years ago they tried that for their "Times Select" opinion pieces, which they tried to charge $50 a year for. My reaction was to stop reading the NYT until the experiment failed, which I knew it would. It was hardly worth paying to read their opinion writers when given any subject I could tell you what David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or Thomas Friedman had to say about it.

I realize that the NYT has to support its journalism, but its journalism is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of great reporting, but their bias toward the wealthy annoys those of us who aren’t. Reading another article about how tough it would be for investment bankers to live in Manhattan on a mere $500,000 a year or the dire straits of trust fund babies struggling in Williamsburg isn’t exactly great investigative journalism. It’s lifestyle porn for the financial class.

Even their straight news articles often barely rise above the level of opinion pieces these days, which is why you can read five paragraphs into an article and still not know what it’s about. The 5 Ws of journalism are lost on too many NYT reporters. All you know is that the author of the article likes to describe the clothing and home interior of some person who might have something to do with some topic 500 words into the article.

So the NYT announcement didn’t bother me that much unless it’s a harbinger of things to come. There are other papers less bloated than the Times, and for foreign affairs the BBC is much better anyway.

But then came the new iPad, and the alleged hope among some publishers and magazines that an iPad success would allow them to create a viable micro-payment service for their content. Fat chance.

First of all, most people couldn’t afford it. Serious news junkies scour gobs of web content. Unless these micro-payments were very small, they couldn’t afford to keep that up. iTunes is mentioned as a model, but there’s a difference between paying 99 cents for a song you’ll listen to over and over and paying 99 cents for a news article you probably won’t even finish reading. Can magazines do any better on a fraction of a penny an article than they can now with advertising?

And would it work like iTunes, where you have to go through the cumbersome iTunes store for everything instead of just clicking on another link? If so, that would annoy more than librarians. The Internet is built on linking, not on silos.

If there weren’t seamless and extremely small micro-payments, the Internet would begin to replicate the old print world, where most people would subscribe to and read a handful of magazines and perhaps one newspaper and get anything else through library subscriptions. Or they’d get it all through library subscriptions. If that happens, fewer people will read those sites which will lead to a downward spiral. In the end, there would be less content and diversity for us all.

Even then I wonder how many news sites and magazines could really sustain a payment system. The ones that do so now tend to be read by financiers, and there are plenty of sites that seem to support themselves through advertising. So it could be those news organizations will have to reorganize to the new conditions or find a wealthy patron.

Which is of course what writers did until fairly recently in history. I read an article the other day by a novelist concerned that novelists would no longer be able to support themselves with their fiction in our "free" environment. But how many writers could ever do that? The life of the full-time professional writer has almost always been precarious.

When the modern book trade was developing in Europe in the eighteenth century or so, the writers were at the mercy of the publishers and book dealers. The advent of copyright has helped writers somewhat, but still few make their livings at it. The ludicrous US copyright laws have served to limit our access to decades of content and protect publisher backlists under the guise of protecting the intellectual property, but haven’t served to enrich writers. I know a number of novelists who write good fiction, even popular fiction, but who wouldn’t be able to survive without their day job, or their teaching gig, or their spouse.

The writers of so-called "literary fiction" and poetry have already retreated to pre-modern writing conditions. Their patrons are colleges and universities rather than lords and ladies, but the effect is the same. Except for a brief period of maybe 150 years, much of the best literature has been written by people who don’t have to depend on their writing to make a living.

So it seems to me that even if some news organizations are so crucial they can maintain their mid-20th century organization well into the 21st century, literary writing will have to move closer to the free wall (something like Amazon’s $9.99) that won’t maintain the publishing industry as it’s been organized in past decades.

Information might not want to be free, but people want free information, and after a decade and more of free, it’ll be hard to turn back. In the end, maybe everyone will be reading the handful of free news sites, and perhaps they’ll abandon contemporary fiction altogether. After all, there’s a lot of great literature published before 1923, and much of it is freely available on Project Gutenberg. I want it free, and free is what I’ll have.

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Comments

  1. The Editor says:

    Sorry AL, we left off the last line of your blog posting.

    “This message was brought to you by a paid employee of the Library Journal. Please don’t forget to renew your subscription if you still want to see more of this librarian related information. Thanks”

    We are sorry AL. We will make it up to you in your next pay envelope.

  2. RadicalPatron says:

    AL – I agree that much of the content out there isn’t worth paying for. Large entities like the federal government & big corporations will pay subscription fees, though the public won’t. Even if it was worth paying for, lots of us just can’t afford it; if we’re not unemployed, many of us are working with salary freezes and furloughs.

    I see an opportunity for public libraries here. What if, instead of paying significant subscription fees to all this content, libraries were more selective? Instead of saying – we’ve bought all this stuff on your behalf and here are the databases where you can find it – libraries positioned themselves as a source of what Ex Libris president Carl Grant has termed “Triple-A information: Authenticated, Appropriate and Authoritative”? (Read more here: commentary.exlibrisgroup.com/2009/02/view-from-top-that-is-exactly-what-is.html)

    What if libraries pointed the public to good info sources outside the mainstream … including citizen efforts such as “Kansas Free Press” (kansasfreepress.com/) … and actually supported their creation and operation in their own regions?

  3. The Boss says:

    500,000 Blogs and nothing to say.

  4. The Hydroxyl Patron says:

    “What if libraries pointed the public to good info sources outside the mainstream … including citizen efforts such as “Kansas Free Press” (kansasfreepress.com/) … and actually supported their creation and operation in their own regions?”

    That would be great. What would be even greater would be making sure that Google crawls these sites and puts up the news quickly and for free.

    Then we could close down a bunch of the branch libraries that are sucking in tax dollars to point people to free resources they can get on their own.

    I want my news free and I want to pay much less in taxes.

    A win win situation.

  5. Bruce Campbell says:

    Have the publishers on the online content not figured out a way to have advertisers cover some of the costs? Some of these newsites have lots of pop-up ads.

    Requesting that fiction of living authors be provided for free is absurd.

  6. RadicalPatron says:

    Folks may be interested in a recent NYT article, Free vs. Paid, Murdoch vs. Rusbridger
    (www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/business/media/08iht-cache08.html)

  7. Twit says:

    Eventually, we won’t need news because we will be able to read the tweets of the people taking part in the event.

    Good luck archiving that and being able to read it in a library fifty years after the event.

  8. Nero says:

    I agree that people have grown accustomed to much free content, a condition which I imagine has contributed to the decline in the quality of that content.

    The cards continue to be increasingly stacked against the producers of information; writers, journalists, even musicians. Following the decline in content quality is the decline in the education of the masses, and as such, a decline in civilization.

    This socialization of information providers has made it much harder to find, or even produce, *good* information providers.

  9. Wolfe says:

    To find *good* information providers, just contact the AL and s/he will get back to you within minutes letting you know whether or not to trust the source.

    It is one of the hidden services that the AL provides.

    Thanks.

  10. The Editor says:

    The editor again: Please ignore my first comment. A colleague here at LJ alerted me to the fact that blog is freely available, also to non-subscribers. My bad.

  11. Brent says:

    I think blogs are reporting news that goes unreported by newspapers. So I don’t think the public is getting less news than 20 years ago; we are getting more.

    But, I’d subscribe to a couple newspapers online if they made an app designed specifically for the iPad that had added content exclusive to that app (videos, interviews, slide shows, live video q&a, etc.). That kind of user experience would be worth the giving money to the newspaper. I hope newspapers learn to adapt soon.

  12. The Editor says:

    Wait, I am sorry, a bunch of pop-up ads came up and obscured my answer.

  13. Tin Foil Derby says:

    “I think blogs are reporting news that goes unreported by newspapers. ”

    Absolutely.

    Were it not for blogs, I would not know that President Obama is really a Kenyan, the CIA blew up the World Trade Towers, the Tri-Lateral commission controls the world money supply, evolution is a myth, the democrats advocate for inter-species marriage,…

    Oh, so much news, I could go on all day, but I have to get off before the authorities track down my IP.

  14. Clio_the_Muse says:

    Brent, just as easy to argue that newspapers are reporting the news that goes unreported by blogs. Bloggers write, with varying levels of skill and intelligence, about the topics they want to write about; you don’t see them covering city hall or school board meetings. Also, you assume that bloggers are just as skilled as journalists; this simply isn’t the case. Undoubtedly there are lots of bad journalists out there, especially as the economics of the industry push salaries downward and cause news organizations to lay off their most experienced and costly staff. But having worked with journalists, I can tell you that it actually does take years to hone investigative skills and build up contacts that will be valuable in getting at the heart of a complex story, as well as a willingness to sit through the boring committee meetings and sift through piles of documents that will eventually break a story open.

    And don’t even get me started on bloggers’ parasitical feeding off of conventional media – take a story that cost a news organization a lot of money to produce, and then sound off with your no-cost angle on it.

    I don’t have anything against bloggers, and I follow a lot of blogs myself, but they simply don’t take the place of good news reporting.

  15. Tin Foil Derby says:

    “I don’t have anything against bloggers, and I follow a lot of blogs myself, but they simply don’t take the place of good news reporting.”

    Yes, but they cover the hidden stories that the main stream media has been “convinced” not to cover.

    Blogs are in the position that the National Enquirer was about 25 years ago. Now who breaks more stories? CBS or the tabloids?

    Case closed.

  16. RadicalPatron says:

    Hi Brent – re: I’d subscribe to a couple newspapers online if they made an app designed specifically for the iPad that had added content exclusive to that app (videos, interviews, slide shows, live video q&a, etc.).

    I work for an STM publisher and this is part of our strategy. One of the things to watch out for are publisher “library bypass strategies”. My employer doesn’t have one, though other publishers are talking about it. More here: (www.radicalpatron.com/library-bypass-strategies/)

  17. Hydroxyl Patron says:

    Libraries are becoming bypassed everyday.

    If the US of A wants to play world cop, big brother in time of disaster, and what not, we are going to lose things like public education, public libraries, etc because they are too costly and people can find stuff on the web.

    I know this is true because I read it on a blog and on wikipedia.

  18. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    The Hydroxyl Patron – “… I want to pay much less in taxes.” Here in the sunny warm south I’ve been laughing up a storm at folks who rant and rave about their taxes. Tea Partiers in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states probably enjoy having their roads plowed. Taxes are what we pay for a decent society – libraries are a huge part of that decent society. I don’t have children but I pay my property taxes (fully one half of that tax bill) because … kids need to go to decent schools.

  19. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    The Hydroxyl Patron – “… I want to pay much less in taxes.” Here in the sunny warm south I’ve been laughing up a storm at folks who rant and rave about their taxes. Tea Partiers in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states probably enjoy having their roads plowed. Taxes are what we pay for a decent society – libraries are a huge part of that decent society. I don’t have children but I pay my property taxes (fully one half of that tax bill) because … kids need to go to decent schools.

  20. I Like Books says:

    Some people still prefer print media. Well, an advantage that hadn’t occurred to me before is that people PAY for newspapers and magazines, and don’t complain that they shouldn’t have to. But readership is dropping as we get free news on the internet, and news companies are reducing staff.

    Who are going to replace the reporters? Bloggers? How many bloggers go to Afghanistan or Nigeria, or spend weeks doing an investigative report in Washington, and then write about it, FOR FREE? Reporters have a full-time job, and they deserve to get paid for it. And a functioning democracy depends on an informed public; I liken the news media to the fourth branch of government, it’s that important.

    So “you can find anything for free on the internet”. You really can’t. But look at the sources of what you can find, if it’s good enough to list sources. Say, a good article on Wikipedia. The bibliography will be full of references to BOOKS, and journals that require SUBSCRIPTIONS, or $35 per article to download.

    As people stop paying for content, the quality of free content will drop until a balance is found between the public’s pocketbook and disgust with the remaining dreck.

    And I might add that, in this way, libraries enrich the internet by making costly resources available to writers. Without libraries the internet would become impoverished.

    And this is also one way in which the benefit of libraries goes beyond just those people that walk in through the door and borrow stuff. Political scientists have noted decades ago that relatively few people become subject experts on one political matter or another, but they inform and influence their family, friends, and coworkers. And blogging only expands the audience of those few that read books. As a society, we really want to make good information available to them.

  21. Hydroxyl Patron says:

    Actually, my roads haven’t been plowed, the mayor needed the money elsewhere. We are told it will melt.

    I think this man needs a raise.

  22. anonymoose says:

    sure you want it free. i want my transportation free, my clothing free, and my food for free. oh, and i want free health care, free schools and i want there to be a safety net. but i don’t want to pay for any of it.

    grow up and get a job.

  23. webdoyenne says:

    For those of you who are “cheap”…sorry.

    Good. Journalism. Costs. Money.

  24. Dr. Brooks says:

    FREE? Did remember you have to pay your ISP bill each month? High speed internet service is not cheap.

  25. Seventeen possums in a sixteen possum ba says:

    I WANT TO BE PAID

    if I have to read Brooks or Dowd or Friedman.

  26. 17 possums in a 16 possum bag says:

    Speaking of cheapness, let’s hope Chip isn’t as stingy with the olives as someone is with name display space…

    Anywhowhatwherewhy, would anyone pay to read AL? That is, in addition to losing a few minor ganglia every time we visit, especially when we post these inanities. I’d be willing to cough up a large sack of lemons once or twice a year for the privilege.

  27. Dr. Mel says:

    “FREE? Did remember you have to pay your ISP bill each month? High speed internet service is not cheap.”

    Amen.

    I find it galling just how much my ISP has to pay to these thugs over at the newspaper. It is a scandal.

  28. Michigan J Frog says:

    There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Likewise free news.

    You pay somewhere,somehow.

    If you don’t and let someone else pay for you that is theft.

    Theft has a long history of being a crime going back to “thou shall not steal”.

    If you think that someone else has a brighter and shinier content and you should be able to have it for free, that is covered too, “thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s ass”. That covers internet news and porn.

  29. Dr. Brooks says:

    Thanks for the chuckle!! > Seventeen possums in a sixteen possum ba commented:

    I WANT TO BE PAID

    if I have to read Brooks or Dowd or Friedman.

  30. Ray Lyons says:

    The various connotations for the word “free” muddy this discussion some. May I suggest the more precise term “100% subsidized”? Also, at the risk of idealizing the “old print world,” it might interest readers to know that there is a two hundred year old precedent for 100% subsidized access to information. In his book Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004) David Nord describes the earliest fully subsidized production and distribution model in U.S. publishing.

  31. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    @webdoyenne show me some good journalism, and then we can talk about whether it’s worth paying for, or not. There’s very little actual journalism transpiring, so I don’t feel bad for not wanting to pay for the same tired old news and perspectives I can get off CNN, with the same poor fact-checking and verification in an attempt to get the story out *first* even if they’re not getting it out *right*. Or doing a report of someone else’s report. How many times do I see “The Times of London is reporting that….” there’s no actual investigative reporting going on there. Heck, I’d be more impressed if they just ran the AP wire report, instead of doing a book report based on some other company’s actual journalism. I haven’t paid for a newspaper in at least fifteen years. In these lean times, newspapers and other news organizations have to earn their keep. IMPRESS me with your journalistic skills, hard-hitting and relevant stories, and above all, your integrity. THEN we will talk about subscription fees. I’ll pay for quality. Most news outlets today are not quality. However, if it comes to paying for marginal crap via the Times, or not paying for complete and total crap from the internet, I’ll just stick with the free stuff–in the end it’s all crap.

  32. Onestupidlibrarian says:

    Hey theilliteratelibrarin, ever hear of writing in English?

  33. LIS degrees are a joke says:

    Oh No! I have to pay for the New York Times online? Who wants to read that crap? Their staff is just a bunch of liars who distort the news with their Obama worshiping agenda. I wouldn’t read it if I was paid to. Mmmm…mmm…mmmm.