There has been a heated debate this week about free information, starting with Malcolm Gladwell's review of Chris Anderson's book Free, in which Gladwell argues that free "fuel" plus costly "infrastructure" results in net losses for companies like YouTube, which will lose a half a billion dollars in 2009, continuing with Seth Godin's assertion that free is the future, whether we like it or not, and eventually splintering into a whole bunch of blogs and comments about the benefits and perils of free content.
As someone who feels that free has led to the democratization of media (and that this is a good thing), I see free content more as the ability to borrow books from a library than the ability to steal them from a bookstore. Not only am I in favor of the idea of free, I'm also in favor of what free does to the process of acquiring content. In the digital world, paying for things involves entering your name, address, credit card information and email into an online form, even if what you're purchasing costs 10 cents. So whereas in a paid content world if you're a gay kid in a conservative town and you want to read about New York's Pride parade on The Huffington Post, you have to borrow a credit card from your parents to do so, in a free content world, everyone has free and anonymous access to that information. And everyone can provide it.
Perhaps this is why I so often find myself defending The Huffington Post and its "prototype for the future of journalism." They're one of the few media outlets that will let me write for them. Before I submitted my recent article, "A Business Model for Journalism Where Writers Get Paid" to The Huffington Post, I pitched it to the following paying online and print newspapers and magazines:
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post
The Los Angeles Times
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Chicago Sun-Times
The Boston Globe
New York Magazine
All of them said no.
To date, the article on The Huffington Post has received 30 comments and 20 tweets, and David Carr, a staff New York Times reporter, referred to it later that week in the Times' Business section.
I read The New York Times. I value The New York Times. But it is very difficult for me to muster sympathy for the financial woes of a newspaper that refuses to let any new members into its elitist little club.
Here is an email someone from NYTimes.com sent me in December 2008 after she had repeatedly rejected my pitches to the City Room blog:
"Thanks for this pitch -- and for the other you submitted recently. I spoke to my editor and though he's intrigued by the idea, we're not looking for any new contributors, paid or unpaid, from the outside."
Paid or unpaid! Meaning that I shouldn't even think about writing for The New York Times' blog for free. It's like an elderly man refusing my help crossing the street because I'm wearing trousers. And while the Times is stubbornly and stodgily manning the gates of the fancy Midtown office building it can't afford, the ever approachable Huffington Post is churning out content and swimming in advertising dollars in its small nondescript workspace downtown.
I'm not arguing that New York Times writers should write for free. To the contrary, I think The Huffington Post should start paying its writers immediately before it becomes, if it hasn't already, a blog for wealthy people who have the financial luxury of writing without getting paid. And even if they wanted to, professional journalists covering current events couldn't write for free for logistical reasons. Someone has to cover the airfare to Afghanistan, for example.
However, what The Huffington Post has done extremely well is say, "Yes." When 11 other publications said "no" (and those were just the ones I could remember), I simply logged into The Huffington Post, submitted my article, and joined the conversation. Blogs linked to it. The New York Times referred to it. If it weren't for the Huffington Post and its inclusive policy, a number of voices simply would not be heard. (And if it weren't for the Huffington Post's free content policy, fewer people would be around to hear them.)
Providing information is something people seem to want to do for free. Godin likens it to writing poetry: "When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage." If someone volunteered to do your taxes for free you probably wouldn't continue paying your accountant. Then again, you still might prefer to pay an accountant who actually knows what she's doing.
Godin wrote, "People will pay for content if it is so unique they can't get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people." The New York Times has always provided unique content, but these days the gate keeping makes it difficult to provide fast, relevant and ample content. If the Times allows more writers in now when all we know is that more content leads to more page views and more ad revenue, it might be in a better position later when the market inevitably and organically decides that some things are worth paying for.