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.