Next year, The New York Times will begin charging users for content after reaching a certain number of read articles. All viewers will have a set number of articles for a given period, and then will be charged either a flat rate or per-article cost.
My first reaction was apathy. I assumed that this was just another attempt at putting certain content behind a wall, like the New York Times had tried to do with their archives and their opinions section in past years. Feeling this, I was surprised by the outrage on the internet to the news.
The strategy was ripped apart by bloggers, readers and commentators. Many said it would be a filter to the rich, denying the news to those who cannot afford it. Others said that it would cripple the Times as the pay wall will drive away the viewers they currently have and the advertisers who pay for those coveted page views. These opinions are not entirely incorrect, but it does highlight one of the inherent conflicts of the internet: what should people have to pay for?
If you ask 99.9 percent of the internet population, that answer is nothing. A culture has been created on the web where people expect a robust, free option with alternatives that are also free. The pay applications are for power users. This has worked fairly well because people have differing needs; while some people may only need to do some simple editing of an image in Paint, others need more advanced applications like Photoshop. Unfortunately, this view is not something that should be applied to news institutions and their sites. The free option is not always the best option; you have to pay for quality.
Unlike applications like browsers and games, being more advanced and thorough in the news is a benefit to the general population. Sure, you may never need Photoshop, but digging up and analyzing secret Pentagon documents is something that has benefits to the community like government transparency.
Furthermore, the option will remain largely free to the majority of readers. The casual consumers of news that like to only read the headlines and the first paragraph will likely still be able to do so. Those that want to read those stories and then other specific sections like the magazine, week-in-review, and in-depth science articles, the ones that are more specific to the Times and likely more expensive to report and write, would be the ones the pay wall is targeting.
Many users assume that there is no cost to the news. News stories appears on so many sites and in press releases, it sometimes may seem difficult to figure out the value of independent reporting. People on the internet can easily start a blog, report on a broken street lamp and completely and accurately say that they are doing investigative citizen journalism. Still, there are large costs to running a news organization that are not easily seen by the average reader of the news, and while the average citizen can aid an institution like a newspaper in becoming a better paper, groups of citizens cannot easily replace it.
For years, advertisers have been able to shoulder the burden of the media and pay or heavily subsidize these hidden costs. This is why the newspaper that many pick up at newsstands or subscribe to can cost as little as a quarter. Yet print advertising has continued to decline over the years, and many companies have decided to invest and explore new, cheaper avenues for getting their messages to the people. Print media companies have done all they can to survive, usually by cutting newsroom staff, decreasing printing sizes and circulations and moving more and more content to websites. Those websites have become increasingly popular, but everyone consumes almost all the content for free. They are 100 percent subsidized by advertisers. What is wrong with making the online model more in line with the print model?
This decision is well thought-out and not without precedent. The Wall Street Journal has a pay wall that is embraced by many for the specific reason that The New York Times thinks it can try this: users believe that the content on there is specific and unique and worth paying for to read.
I know that as a college student, money is tight and that in our evaluation, most stuff that is free should remain free and stuff that is not free should become free. The internet is still developing a model that will make sites profitable and sustainable (just ask Facebook), and by rejecting any model that costs money, people are conceding that information really is not that important. The assumption that a free alternative will always catch up to a pay alternative can only impede needed progress.