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.