How Many Logical Fallacies Can You Make In A Single Column Defending A Paywall?
from the let-me-count-the-ways... dept
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 Boston.com 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. Boston.com will remain free, with news updates through the day, but sometime next year Globe stories will live and hopefully thrive on a paid site, BostonGlobe.com.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.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.
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.
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.