I admit, the notion is hard to conceive of and even a little scary. Just think about it. What if your favorite news outlets began charging for online content? All those articles and Web sites you erratically flit about during the course of the day suddenly would cost money. All those embedded links in stories would now lead you to membership-login screens, and your morning ritual of reading the news would change dramatically.
The landscape of the Internet would be unrecognizable, and the sooner the better, I say.
In case you didn’t hear, last Thursday, The New York Times e-mailed a survey to its print subscribers gauging possible online pricing points. The survey proposed a $5 monthly charge for access to all of the Times' online content and would give print subscribers a 50 percent discount on that price, knocking their cost down to $2.50. Finally, it seems that the harlot known as “The Gray Lady” has decided to employ a little self-respect and start charging for her online services. By August, the company will reportedly have decided on a payment method and pricing structure.
Although I agree with Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton that the $5-a-month charge is far too little, I will leave the countless economic and advertising issues such a decision entails to others. What I want to say is simply this: News compiled into any textual, visual, photographic or auditory package while adhering to certain journalistic principles is a product like anything else, and giving away any product for free is bad business. Spiteful though it may seem, I relish the thought of people no longer being able to skip out on the bill — myself included. There’s no free lunch, and it’s time to pony up.
Of course, media outlets can’t blame anyone but themselves for their predicament. A whole bunch of baby boomers got in a tizzy over that new-fangled World Wide Web and decided it was more important to jump on the train as it rolled out of the station than to plan out the trip. There is no denying that charging for online content will be a struggle with many pitfalls, but I think it is the right decision. The idea that just because the Internet is a completely egalitarian platform, all content should be free and accessible to everyone, is a fallacy that must be corrected.
Undervaluing a product as important as journalism has put the industry in an unfortunate circumstance. "Journalism is dead," according to many a commenter on the Missourian and other news Web sites. Irony aside, comments such as these show not only a lack of appreciation for a pretty demanding trade, but also an ignorance of where much of all the information on the Web originates. The public needs to be reminded that the Internet is a house of cards built upon free content provided by newspapers and magazines. The Huffington Post would be little more than an opinion blog with some original journalism and bikini slideshows if it weren’t for these loathsome rags that have become trendy to disparage as of late.
Charging will help remind people that newspapers are private entities and that their primary job is to produce a high-quality product — not pander to attention-starved citizens and gadflies. There has been much discussion on ColumbiaMissourian.com about citizens' rights when it comes to commenting online, and the majority of the arguments are laughable. Commenting is about as much someone’s right as it is to walk into Shakespeare’s and start taping fliers all over the walls. Do we welcome conversation? Of course. After all, sustaining and informing public discourse is one of the main goals of this and other newspapers, and we welcome the checks and balances, but all this talk of personal rights is foolish. Start a blog.
The movement to begin charging for content online has been building, but it was going to take a behemoth such as the Times to make the first step. Toes will be stepped on and readership will take a hit, but it is a necessary sacrifice. In the end, when all the silt settles, a sustainable business model will form once we start treating our product like a product. As for disgruntled readers, the majority will come back; I know I will pay for the Times. Truth is, everyone will need their fix. News has become an addiction in our society, and junkies abound. The market will remain strong, especially when the first decade was free.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.