What "Monetization" Means to People Without Money

By James Fallows

In a followup to my article about the emerging economics of the news in this month's Atlantic, I mention the cultural gulf that affects all such discussions of journalism's future. On one side are many people in today's press establishment, whose mournful and fatalistic mood unavoidably reflects the nonstop layoffs, loss, and contraction they (we) see around them. On the other side are those from the online and tech start-up worlds, who know they are part of a generally growing industry and naturally feel more confident about the results of experimenting, innovating, possibly failing several times, and (they assume) eventually finding a business model that works.

A reader writes in to raise another cultural/economic aspect of this evolution: what improved "monetization" models will mean for readers who lack money.

There is one aspect of internet economics that doesn't get mentioned much, and it raises, for me, the question: is the internet a luxury? I've gone through life purchasing the subscriptions and useful equipment that I can afford, and muddling through. I can't afford a NY Times subscription AND a local paper subscription, so I have to choose. Sometimes I have a rough patch and I have to let Harper's lapse. [As long as you don't let any others go.... ] I let my cable subscription lapse because I can access the things I care about on the internet, and I have to let go of the re-runs of MASH from my life.

Up until recently, I have access to a trove of information that I've never had access to before. I read the NY Times daily, along with a host of other resources.... I take advantage of shareware, and open source utilities and applications. Software lost a healthy dose of utility to me when I was asked to pay for technical support (the hey-day of WordPerfect tech support is a fond and distant memory). I'm not a free-loader; I just can't afford the service.

My point is not that I should get things for free; clearly a limit was reached on the economics of funding software companies through upgrades alone. But as this thing called the internet is starting to demand to be paid for, there is a decreasing list of services that are economically available to me. And so with all of this talk about "paywalls" and "monetization" I am starting to see the writing on the wall: I fear that I will have to forgo a great number of things have opened up for me in my life.

Scarcity drives wealth, and wealth is scarce. The internet as it has been conceived to date has opened tremendous opportunities to those without wealth. Clearly the trend is now toward increasing scarcity on the internet, and, accordingly, the decreasing access of those without wealth.

PS: This opens an entirely different dialog about the increasing demonization of those without wealth: if you can't afford it, you're lazy and worthless (morally speaking). A public education, with access for all, used to be a good thing. Am I a free-loader when I read the Times for free? Or am I a person who can afford it when it's free, and who will, as before the internet, have to forgo the luxury when I can no longer afford it?

I don't have an answer to all the questions here; but this note struck me as identifying an issue I hadn't seen presented in just this way before. Like every other technological/business upheaval, what is happening now to the press will have unanticipated effects, both good and bad. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/what-monetization-means-to-people-without-money/57197/