How Many Logical Fallacies Can You Make In A Single Column Defending A Paywall?

from the let-me-count-the-ways... dept

Recently, the Boston Globe (owned by The NY Times, so it was hardly a surprise) announced plans for a paywall of sorts. I say “of sorts,” because the paper is actually creating two websites, one of which will have a paywall and one that won’t. Apparently, will cover local news, sports and weather — and will remain free. Meanwhile,, which will carry news, feature stories, commentary, analysis, photographs and such will have a subscription fee. Not that I think a paywall for either one makes much sense, but if they had to have a paywall, it seems like this setup is backwards. After all, it’s the in-depth feature stories and commentary that are more likely to attract a “drive-by” audience from the web — the sorts of people who will never pay a subscription fee to see that content. Whereas that local info may be more difficult to get elsewhere, and targets locals who would value content more on a regular basis enough to pay a subscription fee (maybe…). So that had me a bit confused.

That said… what really got me confused was a column celebrating the decision by Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory. It seemed to get so many things wrong, that it made me wonder if this was the sort of “commentary” and “analysis” the Globe is hoping people will pay for. Let’s go through some of the mistakes.

Seriously, for the better part of the last decade, every high-brow thinker in the new media business has condescendingly repeated a phrase that is somehow as insidious as it is inane: Information wants to be free.

Except that’s not true. Point me to “every high-brow thinker in the new media business” who says that. As Cory Doctorow recently pointed out, it is a phrase that seems to almost only be used by those condemning the “new media thinkers,” to mock them for suggesting such a crazy thing. The problem is, no one seems to be able to find those thinkers who do say “information wants to be free.” Even the original quote, by Stewart Brand, isn’t that “information wants to be free.” The full quote is:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

It is true that many folks — myself included — think that plenty of information will be free based on the economics, and that it’s important to understand the economics to recognize which content will be driven towards free, and how to properly use that to your advantage — but I’m not aware of any (respected, at least) “new media thinker” who simply claims “information wants to be free.” In fact, we’ve said the same thing that McGrory says in retort: Information doesn’t want anything.

So why must McGrory set up the strawman?

Trust me, people, information really doesn’t care if it’s free or paid. I asked it. It said it just wants to be read and appreciated. As a matter of fact, every half-wit who has ever uttered that absurd slogan should be lined up on Morrissey Boulevard and forced to watch an endless loop of cute kitten videos on YouTube. This is the information that wants to be free, and free is exactly what it’s worth.

Ah, the fallacy of cute kittens on YouTube. As if that’s the only content that’s free online. Never mind the vast databases of information — much of it valuable that’s widely available “for free.” Hell, let’s move away from the internet, and look at broadcast radio and television — both of which employ the same basic business model as much of the free content on the internet. Did that get reduced to an endless loop of cute kittens? But because some guy who has a column doesn’t like some cute kittens on YouTube, it’s “proof” that free content on the internet doesn’t work. Did you know that the printing press is used to print some incredibly awful books? According to McGrory-reasoning, that means that nothing produced by the printing press has any value.

And while we’re at it, I sincerely admire all the Internet whiz kids in scarves and black-rimmed glasses who’ve taken up shop in the Globe building and helped make one of the most widely read newspaper websites in the country. But enough talk about the 6 trillion page views every morning. Until and unless the website can support the army of reporters and editors who make it unique, then it has yet to be a true success.

Sure, but why are you blaming the “internet whiz kids,” when it sounds like the problem is the people upstairs in the suits who failed to properly monetize the traffic.

This whole mess came to be because, years ago, some lunkhead in some newspaper front office made the decision to give stories away for free on the Web while continuing to charge for the paper, the assumption being that the windfall in digital advertising would make it all worthwhile. Just about every newspaper in America timidly followed suit.

Ah, the myth of “the original sin” of newspapers. Of course, it’s not true. Some newspapers did try to charge. And they failed, because no one would pay. It wasn’t “some lunkhead,” it was competition and people realizing that if they charged, and their competitors didn’t, they’d fail. By the way, that hasn’t changed today, so beware the newspapers that think they’ll get away with charging.

I’m no economist, but I believe we ended up being the only business in the history of commerce to give our product away for free one way and charge another.

Yes. I mean, other than music, which has done that for a while (listen free on the radio, buy the CD). Television lets you watch shows for free on TV, but sells the DVD. What else? Hell, right inside newspapers, comic strips were given away “for free” (with the newspaper), but top comic strips still made a ton of money on books (and merchandise). There are plenty of cases of products given away for free in one area and sold in another.

Then everyone acted perfectly shocked that paid newspaper circulations plummeted while free views on our websites soared. Picture these executives scratching their beards and saying, “I can’t believe they’re taking it for free.”

I get that he’s trying to be funny, but it’s worth noting that circulation for newspapers started plunging long before the internet came along, and he conveniently pretends (incorrectly) that this was all in a vacuum. That if newspapers hadn’t gone free, people still would have paid… not that competitors would have shown up and taken the traffic happily for free.

Yesterday’s announcement was a game-changer to all this, a better-late-than-never victory for those of us who believe we should have been charging all along. Readers will still get a choice. will remain free, with news updates through the day, but sometime next year Globe stories will live and hopefully thrive on a paid site,

Where you can get completely clueless commentary like this!

Free doesn’t begin to pay for the expensive journalism that’s produced here. Free doesn’t pay for reporters who keep public officials and major institutions honest, and expose them when they’re not. It doesn’t pay for the best critics in the country, as we have. It doesn’t pay for some of the best education reporters, the most attuned environment and public health reporters, sophisticated political reporters, tireless sports reporters, sharp financial reporters, and the restaurant critic who keeps chefs on their toes.

Free doesn’t fund stories that expose corruption in the state’s Probation Department, or lead to an overhaul of the pension system, or cost the House speaker his job. Free doesn’t shake the Vatican to its core.

Say it with me again for the slow folks still catching up: giving away something for free does not mean you don’t make money. The whole point of giving away content for free online was to make money elsewhere. Now, it may be true that The Boston Globe isn’t very good at making money elsewhere, but that’s not the fault of “free.” It’s the fault of people doing a bad job with their business model.

And whether or not “free” pays for all those things, one thing it has done? Made sure there’s no good reason to pay the Boston Globe anything if they’re going to spend it on clueless columns like Brian McGrory’s.

But the bigger point is that newspapers have almost never been paid for by subscription fees. Today’s subscription feeds don’t even cover the cost of newsprint and delivery. In fact, you could argue that selling a newspaper at the price that many newspapers do today makes even less sense than giving it away for free online, because the margins are even worse directly for the paper. But the physical product makes it up (mostly) via ad revenue. The online ad revenue hasn’t matched the offline one yet, but that doesn’t mean it will never get there. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other interesting business models that newspapers can use. But slamming “free” isn’t the answer. It’s not even asking the right question. It’s just wishful thinking.

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Comments on “How Many Logical Fallacies Can You Make In A Single Column Defending A Paywall?”

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TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Let’s not even mention that the site is crammed full of ads and that people put up with the things because they love the content.

Cats have a curious relationship to humans. We find them beautiful, graceful, the source of the best relaxation medication around (purrs), powerful, dangerous, funny, silly and somewhat idiotic. And for those sentenced to live in huge cities something of a link the the wild as it’s clear that they’re don’t fully domestic or wild. They’re a bridge.

Might be why we lavish so much care and affection on an animal that is more than happy to take both while it uses our bodies as bedwarmers at night!

(FYI, I’m the proud, happy custodian of a pair of these little beasts.)

Designerfx (profile) says:

I love when they say it was suddenly free

I mean what happened to public radio? news on public TV?

both of those are free. Granted the people are paid but we view that news for free too.

I wonder how they missed that part of the argument. If they’re willing to put news behind a paywall are they willing to take the news off of CBS/NBC and put it on a premium channel?

I didn’t think so.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I love when they say it was suddenly free

“Granted the people are paid”

That’s one of the funny things here – nobody’s saying the work itself should be done for nothing. Only that as market forces drive the up front price down toward zero, their salaries may not be directly linked to the cover price (which, if we’re all honest, it never has been).

Anonymous Coward says:

I know this is kind of off topic, but I find the scare argument of “politics not being controlled if there’s no newspapers” to be at least odd. I understand that that happens a lot in the US, but I find it amusing that you give so much power to a private company with private interests. I think that state control should be left in the hands of ONG’s (with differing but clear interests) and not in the hands of people who are in it for the money. You can tell me whatever you want about the ethics of journalists but at the end of the day they receive a paycheck from a company which will always have its interests at heart. If you don’t believe that, just check out what’s happening in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. It’s like letting Fox News be the auditor on politician corruption.

bdhoro says:

Changing Business Models? Not really....

I end up arguing this same point with random people all the time and it really surprises me how little people understand the basic economics of their own business models.

The fact is there hasn’t been a single publication, writer, musician, or artist of any type who has ever gotten rich by getting people to pay for the content they produce. The money has always been corporate and will continue to be. These people get rich off of their popularity – once they become widespread enough, corporations want to be associated with that popularity and will pay grandly.

Any other business model just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Would you rather have a few dollars every time someone reads your story or have millions of people read it. You have to make that choice and its pretty clear which is better.

But still most people don’t grasp this concept. I ask my friend all the time (something more relevant to them) how they think musicians make money, like “why is Jay-Z rich?”
Many people say its because he’s sold a lot of cd’s. Its true but thats a small percentage of his fortune, most of it comes from his amazing marketing of himself and his brand. Lots of people would buy anything he’s associated with.

The point is… money doesn’t create good content. But, when good content is created people recognize it, it becomes popularity, and popularity is one of the easiest things in the world to monetize.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Information has no brain with which to want

It is not information but people who wish to be free – free to share the news, disseminate copies, abridge, extend, include, and present it in their own way.

That’s natural.

What’s unnatural is an 18th century privilege that prohibits people from doing so.

Given the Internet has rendered copyright’s prohibition ineffective (it was always an unnatural and unethical anachronism), it’s not surprising if newspapers keep thinking that if copies are free their journalism cannot be sold.

Au contraire, the journalism can be sold. What can’t be sold are digital copies of it (well, not economically).

There is an opposite and far superior model to the paywall, and this is the publication model. Instead of charging people to come across the paywall to read the news, you charge them to allow the news to come across the paywall to the public. In other words you invite those who want the journalists to work, to sponsor the production and publication of their work. The benefit is, by being freely copyable it acts as its own promotion.

The newspapers have got the paywall completely back to front, but then that’s copyright inculcated anal retentiveness for you.

Lance says:

Isn't Free Cheaper Than Printed Subscriptions?

Perhaps I am incorrect, but don’t newspapers actually lose money on printed subscriptions? Isn’t the “free” internet actually cheaper for them?

I mean, my local town newspaper still shows up in my mailbox and I don’t pay for that.

What the papers lost was advertising revenue due to increased competition. The illusion that big papers did lots of reporting was squashed when a user could go from site to site and see all the wire reports that were shared. If you want national or international news it doesn’t matter what site you go to.

Local news, analysis of ongoing stories, opinions, in short, unique content is what draws eyeballs. Being unique is much harder than running wire stories.

Journalism is to reporting what accounting is to bookkeeping. Not everyone who writes for a newspaper is a journalist.

Ray Trygstad (profile) says:

The Kohl's ad...

If I know that the only way I could see the weekend specials at Kohl’s in Boston was to go to, you can bet I would go to to get to it. The newspapers have clearly not learned how to sell the local viewers they draw to advertisers; instead I have to go to the print version to see the Kohl’s ad. Someday they’ll figure this stuff out but meanwhile there is far too much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

FormerAC (profile) says:

My response, sent directly to Brian McGrory

I hope your column “A free press no more” is not the type of expert commentary we can expect on If so, you are doomed. I find multiple cases of complete ignorance and several logical fallacies in your column.

“I’m no economist, but I believe we ended up being the only business in the history of commerce to give our product away for free one way and charge another.”

Did you do any research on the subject?
Television is free. Put up an antenna and you receive it for free. Supported by advertising. The exact business model you claim is worthless. Not only that, they sell millions of DVDs of the same TV shows that they give away for free! Radio is free. Supported by advertising. The exact business model you claim is worthless. Hell, American Idol combines the two and gives away music and television for free. Supported by advertising. Why does American Idol produce CDs, DVDs and concert tours when they give everything away for free on TV? A terrific local radio station ( not only is commercial free, but manages to host FREE concerts every week. They put their playlists up on the internet in real time, with links to Amazon and Itunes. Why? So that I can purchase the music they play. They let me hear the music for free and make it easy to buy it, which I do, quite regularly.

The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, The Dave Matthews Band, U2 and Phish. Would you call them failures? All of them allow their fans to tapes their concerts and freely trade them with each other. Giving their music away for free. Why would anyone pay to see them in concert? Simon and Garfunkel gave a free concert in Central Park and still managed to sell two million albums/CDs of the very same concert.

Newspapers are hardly the “only business in the history of commerce” to give your product away one way and charge another. Perhaps the problem here is you are not providing compelling content that people are willing to pay for.

“Seriously, for the better part of the last decade, every high-brow thinker in the new media business has condescendingly repeated a phrase that is somehow as insidious as it is inane: Information wants to be free.”

Name one.
It shouldn’t be difficult since you are sure every high-brow thinker has condescendingly repeated the phrase. Perhaps it is you who are taking the quote out of context and using it to support your arguement.
Even the original quote, by Stewart Brand, isn’t that “information wants to be free.” The full quote is:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free,
because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

The cost of getting information out is decreasing. Putting a paywall in front of the information does not change this equation.

“every half-wit who has ever uttered that absurd slogan should be lined up on Morrissey Boulevard and forced to watch an endless loop of cute kitten videos on YouTube. This is the information that wants to be free, and free is exactly what it’s worth.”

Apparently you and I have different ideas of the worth of these things. Whether you like cute kitty pictures or videos is irrelevant. generates millions of hits every day. Supported by advertising. It is such a successful business model that last year they sold it for $2 million. Why don’t you ask Google if they make any money with YouTube? Or Susan Boyle. She gave her performance away on Britain’s Got Talent. Her album set a record for pre-release sales on and was the number one album in America for six weeks before she appeared on any American TV show. Completely on the back of the YouTube videos.

You argue that all newspaper sites are free because they followed the decision of some “lunkhead in some newspaper front office” and everyone followed suit. Clearly nobody has attempted a paywall for a newspaper before then, right? Maybe it was tried and just failed horribly.

Newspapers are a failing business. The internet is not to blame. Newspapers have been in decline for decades. Television news and newspapers peacefully co-existed for decades. The six o’clock news gave people a timely recap of the days events. The morning newspaper provided in depth coverage. The arrival of 24 hour cable news channels forever changed the news industry. A once a day newspaper can no longer deliver news in a timely fashion. Today’s tech savvy audience is not waiting for the newspaper to arrive tomorrow to find out what is happening. They can turn on any one of a dozen TV stations to find out. They can search the internet and find out. Hell, I have an app for that!. RSS feeds bring the news to me. Now, not tomorrow.

I do agree however, that society needs investigative journalism. Unfortunately there is precious little of it to be found. My local newspaper is pushing very hard for new subscribers. While the paper is not a Boston Globe or NY Times, I decided to buy one to take a look. In the front section there was one story by a reporter employed by the paper. The entire “hot news” section of the paper was copy/pasted from AP stories. Why on earth would I pay for that? If I want bland AP stories, I can find them from a thousand sources on the internet. What value is a newspaper providing by parroting AP stories. Very little in my mind.

Your column is an embarrassing example of why newspapers are dying. You offered no facts or any trace of “investigative journalism.” All you provided was a rant. Which I can get for free, from anyone with a blog. Why should I pay to see yours?

Anonymous Coward says:

I think the “internet whiz kid” and “information wants to be free” comments demonstrate that he has a significant dislike of how technology is changing his industry. Faced with an unpleasant notion of change, and demonstrably lacking any notion of how to deal with it, he justifies his dislike by attacking it as stupid, stringing together a tangle of fallacy to support it.

It seems to me that really big, disruptive change, such as the kind facing industries today, always takes at least a generation to be accepted. Ossified thinkers who are incumbent in their field have to retire and move on before the kids who grew up under the influence of that change can take their place and take advantage of the new things available.

out_of_the_blue says:

A major variable is always left out.

Actually, for almost any newspaper, existing and predictable advertising revenue *could* support the activities of reporters and such, BUT it can’t *also* support the class of leisured parasites who grab the majority of income. The current “capitalist” corporatism is utterly arbitrary and has become quite a strangely staid but voracious institution, based on fleecing suckers and workers for the unearned benefit of those who were born into privilege. (Okay, that’s obscured by the *anomaly* of social mobility that existed *before* there were large numbers of leisured parasites in the US, and that for a time, the upper classes were being reduced in other countries: that era is OVER.)

Anyway, we’re now in a diffierent era than that of the underlying premises supporting all current “business models”. Just mentally cut out shareholders: what’s different? All the capital equipment still exists, and the workers know basically what to do with it. They’d no longer be under the thumb of moneyed interests to produce “news” that’s suits the upper class, but would be “free” to pursue their own class interests in what news they report. Sure, in time, it’d tend toward same as current situation. That’s why society needs to explicitly re-invent and re-invigorate institutions by creative destruction. Just abolish any corporation after say 25 years existence, sell it off to last paper clip, let others start new in the field.

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