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Make me pay for my news

January 20, 2010

The New York Times announced Wednesday that it intended to charge frequent readers for access to its Web site, a step being debated across the industry that nearly every major newspaper has so far feared to take.

Starting in early 2011, visitors to NYTimes.com will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site. Full story.

The comments to this announcement on the NYTimes website have almost universally denounced this move.

I support it.

Newspapers do not operate for free. Reporters cannot eat our comments for dinner or use it to pay their mortgages. Right now, newspapers are bleeding red ink. Several prominent American newspapers have already folded. One of Canada’s most important newspaper conglomerates has just declared bankruptcy.

We know that the New York Times is losing money– to the point that it was looking to sell or mortgage its Manhattan building to cover its massive debt.

This move is not a profit grab so much as a means for survival.

It seems obvious that the current model of free news provision can only continue for so long before the whole thing collapses. At that point, the quality of journalism will undoubtedly suffer as will the quality of news on the web.

For this reason, I, for one, will be happy to pay.

There are problems though– once you start moving to a pay model, then information cannot be shared as easily as it is today, which ends up being a loss for everyone. Certainly, the wide variety of high quality sources that most of us take for granted today is going to shrink as media outlets demand payment for access to their content. Bloggers like myself will not be able to share articles with readers as easily and posting links in Facebook will not be nearly as fun since no one will be able to read them.

More importantly though, those who are less able to afford the subscription fee will simply have to go without. Think about all the Iranians who relied on the BBC website to get their news about the post-election protests. What if the BBC had adopted a user-pay model? Since the BBC is run on a different model, there is really no danger of this happening, but the point remains: those who can’t afford to pay for their news will have to settle for whatever is available from free sites.

From a macro perspective, this move is bad for democracy– not just in the US, but around the world. If the Times’ experiment works, every other media outlet will be clambering to follow suit. You can think of this as the first step towards separating the information haves from the information have-nots. Globally, this will mark the incremental erosion on access to good quality information– in relative terms, the gains are going to benefit the wealthy.

So, while I get ready to pull out my credit card, I’m also bracing myself for a new model of news distribution. One that will be less open, less lively, less fun, and ultimately, less democratic.

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