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I don't think principles have anything to do with the issue, no matter how some (often with vested interest) would like the debate to be framed.

To me this is mostly technological evolution, with subsequent behavioral and social changes as consequences. Just like the automobile displaced the horse carriage in the first half of the 20th century and integrated circuits replaced electronic tubes, Kodak sent to the dustbin of history by digital cameras, etc...

Yes, paid content is in trouble in the printed press. The fact is that historically, a paper's newsstand sale price or subscription cost has only paid for printing and distribution costs, not for paying the reporting or op-ed writing. The bulk of the income has been from advertising and classified.

Witness the emergence, over the last decade, of free newspapers like Metro or 20 minutes: they have streamlined their printing & distribution costs, often by laying their papers at the entrance of bus & train stations and off they go.

In my field (electronics), professional publications like EEtimes or EDN have always proposed free subscriptions to "qualified professionals": just about any engineer working in any company "qualifies" for their advertisers and its been working like that for decades; the Net has even simplified these publications life: no need to bother with printing & postage any longer.

An example in a totally opposite direction: "Le Canard Enchaîné", the famous French satirical weekly newspaper only has a bare-bones web page and is making all its income of paper sales (they don't carry any advertising at all). Their finances are in excellent shape, because they are able to provide truly unique and exclusive news contents to their readers (as opposed to parrot press releases and talking points); enough readers are willing to shell out their EUR 1.20 every Wednesday to keep the venerable institution afloat.

These are examples in the "dead trees" world, but on the Net, printing and distribution costs tend down to zero; so it is logical that Internet publications are and remain free. As you pointed out, just about any content behind pay-wall is available elsewhere for free.

The objection is often: but who will provide the "original news gathering" if not the paid-for traditional press?

The fact is: plenty of world class news organizations provide their content for free to the viewer/reader: ABC, CBS etc...  Not counting the public radios and television, where the cost is borne by the country's taxpayers.

And when it comes to opinion and analysis, as opposed to raw fact & news gathering, we already know there is no shortage of people who are ready to publish; and again, on the web the cost trends down to zero.

So the economics is clear: most of so-called "paid content" will no longer be able to be charged for, neither will we be able to bring Kodak film back to life. It's all over but the crying, but many (and I'm not surprised to see Rupert Murdoch in the lot) are still in full denial mode.

A sad example of collective self-deluding group-think was some of the enthusiasm that came out with the iPad: many in the media world have seen the new Apple device as the "savior of the news media", no less. Why so? Because of all the exclusive "applications" that provide news-media organization content for a price. Hallelujah! Saint Steve Jobs has saved us!

Seriously, I pity the fool who thinks that people will go back into walled gardens after having roamed the whole world. It's back to the future fantasy world: get me the DeLorean (now that's a flying car).

by Bernard on Sat Jul 3rd, 2010 at 12:24:20 PM EST

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