The 14 3/4 Biggest Ideas of the Year July/August 2010

Information Wants to Be Paid For

Ever since the popularization of the Web browser, people have been incanting the mantra of the Whole Earth Catalog guru Stewart Brand: “Information wants to be free.” Following that formula, newspapers and magazines shoveled their content online, file-sharing of music seemed not only inevitable but hip, and those who suggested that we charge for digital content were decried as clueless. We forgot the second half of Brand’s dichotomy: “Information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.”

Thanks partly to the advertising recession, people are now looking for ways to resolve the tension between the two parts of Brand’s maxim. As news organizations slash their staffs, reliable and reported information from trusted sources will remain valuable but may become harder to find, which means that some folks are likely to be willing to pay for good sources of it. (See “Closing the Digital Frontier” in this issue.)

So now The New York Times and other newspapers are considering a hybrid model in which a certain number of their articles are free and the rest require some payment. Rupert Murdoch has pronounced that he will find ways to charge online for all of his papers, just as he already does for The Wall Street Journal. Apple’s launch of the iPad gave a glimpse of how cool and convenient a digital magazine or newspaper could be, and how easily a publisher could charge 99 cents or so for it. People have already begun subscribing to publications on the Amazon Kindle, even though they could get them for free online.

If this trend succeeds, it could not only save newspapers and magazines, but usher in a new golden age for them. It could also be a boon for citizen journalism, which is now practiced largely by those who can afford to do it without pay. In a future where people pay for good content, bloggers who produce truly valuable information might actually be able to pay their mortgages and buy food for their families.

For 300 years, ever since the Statute of Anne was established in England, there has been a system in which the creators of intellectual property—articles, essays, books, stories, music, plays, and pictures—had a right to benefit when copies of them were made. This “copyright” system helped to encourage and sustain generations of creative people and hardworking hacks. From this grew an economy based on the creation of intellectual property, along with industrial organizations such as newspapers and publishing houses that trained and supported writers. If we want to have that for future generations, we may have to get used to the notion that some information wants to be paid for.


14 3/4. Reefer Sanity
by Joshua Green
7. Information Wants to Be Paid For
by Walter Isaacson
14. It’s Too Easy Being Green
by Kai Ryssdal
6. The Kids Aren’t All Right
by David Leonhardt
13. Teachers Are Fair Game
by David Brooks
5. Bonfire of the Knuckleheads
by Jeffrey Goldberg
12. The Rise of the Drones
by Martha Raddatz
4. The Power of No
by Michael Kinsley
11. Obama Is No Liberal
by James Bennet
3. Boredom is Extinct
by Walter Kirn
10. The Triumph of Free Speech
by Jeffrey Rosen
America Is No. 2
by James Fallows
9. The Catholic Church Is Finished
by Ross Douthat
1. The End of Men
by Hanna Rosin
8. Deficits Matter
by Megan McArdle
PLUS: More Ideas of the Year
From TARP to sleeping with Tiger Woods
Presented by

Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

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