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News in the Internet Age

Jan 22, 2010

For years now, newspapers have been trying to figure out how to finance news journalism in the internet age. Or, as it is more commonly put, “get people to pay for news online.” For a time, it seemed like micropayments would be the solution, but the profitability of online payment transactions relies on the rule of fewer transactions, larger amounts. It is far easier to move a one-hundred dollar bill than ten thousand pennies.

But beneath it all there was a deeper issue; we have been trained on the internet to search for news, and search algorithms rely on spiders, or automated or robotic browsers, to follow links and search content. Paid content may sit behind a wall, disallowing both robots and humans from finding it. The converse is that which is searchable is accessible.

Then there is the issue of what the subscribers do with the information. In traditional print, there was some limited oversight in reprinting and republishing and redistribution, mostly because of the cost and effort required of such things. On the internet, you can go to the public library, log in, and start a blog on blogger and publish to the world. Even before this, it was fairly inexpensive to get your name out there, with a bit of know-how.

This all adds up to the concept that if you do not offer the news that you may have paid to compile or write for free, someone else will. Indeed, early on some savvy writers such as Drudge took advantage of free distribution to gain immense popularity while newspapers were still struggling to figure out what the internet was, much less how to maintain their current business through the changes it would impose.

The New York Times has suffered no less than any from this unwelcome disruption, and their recent actions show that they are still trying to figure things out:

The news that The New York Times will start charging for access to its website broke over the weekend, but now it’s officially confirmed. As anticipated, one of the world’s most recognizable newspapers will be introducing a metered model, meaning they will “offer users free access to a set number of articles per month and then charge users once they exceed that number.”

There are various comments, both by the author and by his commenters regarding the situation. It is always a touchy subject. Some like to get their news for free, and would never pay for it. Others see the ebook tablet – Kindle and so forth – as a possible route for rescue of the newspapers.

Either way, the internet offers no help; the information on the internet is in practice not free to produce or distribute (there used to be time and rate limits on internet, if you can remember back that far…!) but the scale of the internet combined with the ubiquity of computers distributes that cost. If it had come around 50 years ago out of the blue, the $500-$1000 for a computer alone would be enough prevent illusions of it being free of cost. Those of us who grew up with computers had our first use for ‘free’ as it were; with our parents or guardians paying for both computer and internet access.

The way I see it, if we set up a system to reliably pay for journalism, we prevent two things: The first is invasive and pervasive advertising, and the second is outright begging. It’s a cultural thing. Will my generation adapt?

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