The New York Times appears to be about to stop charging for its opinion articles and archive searches (I only have unsourced assertions and suspicions to support this, but the noise is consistent). Several bloggers are cheering. I am not, and they are wrong.
I’m happy to get anything I can for free, but this development, however nice in the short run, is evidence of the inability of any newspaper to develop a workable business model for on-line publishing, and that failure is very bad news all around. It’s part and parcel of the slow collapse of the music business, whose sales are down another 20% or so this year, and the enduring piracy troubles of movie producers. Newspapers used to charge a nuisance fee for a physical paper whose circulation to countable readers allowed them to sell the readers’ attention to advertisers, and of course music used to be delivered on some sort of physical disk that was tedious to copy. Paper circulation is down and ad revenues with it, for every paper; yesterday the Times arrived an inch and a half narrower than it used to be. Consequently, the lights are going out in city rooms all over the country. I know there’s some Schumpeterian model of markets red in tooth and claw that should reassure me that everything is for the best, but newspapers are not just another medium, even if they have had a good century operating as profit-making private businesses.
Why can’t they just move the whole operation to the net? I never click on an internet ad and I don’t get much useful information seeing them, nor remember them, because they’re just too small to have either impact or much content. Whether because we’re so strongly acclimatized to stuff on the screen being free, or because it’s impractical to keep it from leaking out (despite a whirlwind of suing websites), or because people intrinsically understand that the economically efficient price for digital content is zero, the market is broken and the businesses are going broke. Cable TV, which people seem willing to pay for access to, seems to be hanging on, but I don’t watch TV commercials either and I’m not alone. There are a lots of Tivos out there, and advertisers are going to stop paying for eyeballs associated with skip buttons and timeshifting. When the dust clears, I see no workable mechanism on the horizon by which writers and editors can be paid to generate a newspaper (musicians can give live concerts publicized by downloaded and shared mp3s, but that’s not going to keep their business alive either).
Enjoy your free Times Select while it lasts, folks; that sound you just heard was not the triumph of free information over selfish profiteers, it was the sound of the iceberg opening up four or five compartments below the waterline.