The convoluted logic of paywalls

The AtlanticThe Atlantic is running a couple of articles in favor of the concept of paying for content that are so delusional that it’s hard not to actually laugh. The meme being fostered here is that “information wants to be paid for,” because the old saw “information wants to be free” is a mistake, or worse, a deliberate attempt by the hippies of old to dismantle institutions based on information. Hmm.

In Closing the Digital Frontier, Chris Hirschorn paints the picture of the iPad’s paid app model being a fort in the wild west where the good people can safely gather to conduct their business. It’s worth the click through just for the image.

Hirschorn argues that this whole “free” business originated from what he views as a radical organization, “the Northern California–based Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (known as the WELL), the wildly influential bulletin-board service that brought together mostly West Coast cyberspace pioneers to discuss matters of the day.”

I take you on this quick tour not to make fun of futurism past (I have only slightly less-purple skeletons in my closet), but to point out how an idea that we have largely taken for granted is in fact the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixed, hyperlinked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality, in theory if not always in practice, proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds.

My only response to this is so what? Maybe we — as a people — ought to be searching for something different. After all, take a look around and ask yourself if our culture might not be in need of some rather drastic alterations.

The fort image aside, Walter Isaacson argues in a second article (Information wants to be paid for) for pay walls for news and information.

Thanks partly to the advertising recession, people are now looking for ways to resolve the tension between the two parts of Brand’s maxim (ED: Stewart Brand — information wants to be free AND expensive). 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.

Regular readers here know of my distaste for assumptions in prose attempting to make an argument, so let me deconstruct two in this paragraph alone. One is the assumption of trust (“information from trusted sources”). Gallup’s research since 1973 shows a decline in trust with 55% of Americans now distrusting the press more than trusting it. The second is this idea that advertising is in a recession. This is a critical assumption, for it suggests the day will come when advertising will be “out” of its recession, and business will want to spend money with the media again. This assumption is dangerous, for advertising isn’t in a recession; it’s in an all-out revolution. Media companies fool themselves if they think that paywalls will save them in an era of advertising disrupted. Our business isn’t news; it’s advertising, and this is where our focus should be, not in crazy thoughts about subscriber fees and paywalls.


  1. This is something I said to our friend Ben several years ago, we do not sell news, we sell advertising and news is the vehicle we use to sell it. I think one reason, at least on our local area in Alabama, is that the product is to weak to support selling advertisements and will continue to be unless journalism improves. What we have now is a website full of games and gimmicks that attempt to lure viewers to our website and have nothing substantial to say once they arrive.

  2. Brett, your future lies not with your website but with enabling commerce in your marketplace. Different animal entirely. Study advertising disrupted (another coming essay), and you’ll discover how your brand can be used to open doors to other things. So I agree with you but disagree in a larger sense. There’s no amount of quality content that will rescue local media, IMO.

  3. You are right, when local media failed to embrace “New Media” they sealed their own fate.

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