Free Press

In the wake of the New York Times dropping its paid Times Select service, there is news today that the Wall Street Journal’s Web site may drop its pay wall as well.

Again, the role of liberator is being played by advertising revenue. The WSJ, purchased recently by Rupert Murdoch, a closely monitored development that had many journalists worried that the end of the world had arrived, hopes that revenue from advertisers will cover the loss of about $30 million a year in subscription fees.

Why keep a newspaper’s Web site behind a pay wall? To make money, of course, but that only works if readers continue to use the paid Web sites. If users can get equally well-written news cheaper (read: “free”) elsewhere, they will.

“But what about quality and brand loyalty?” you might ask. “What about paying the salaries of all those highly skilled reporters?” (And no, I’m not mocking them. I’m a reporter myself.)

That’s the real issue behind the “paid versus free” issue. Can readers get equally well written and researched news from elsewhere, news that has a hope of competing with the quality journalism put out by papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Of course they can, depending on how you define “well written and researched.”

Look at CNN.com for an example of why people don’t care about how well-written news articles are. At the top of each of their online posts, they have a section labeled “Story Highlights.” These highlights comprise a list of sentence length key points about the story. Readers don’t even have to scroll down the page to read the article; they can read the highlights and get the gist. More commonly, the gist is all people think they need.

But CNN has never exactly been known as a world leader in “deep” journalism, has it? The network is known for getting the news quickest. Let the New York Times’ writers analyze it to death. CNN will keep to its sound bites and overblown celebrity coverage.

I’m not bitter, I swear.

This shows that there should be a place for the deep analysis and quality reporting that big papers can provide. So why open their archives to the public? Couldn’t they continue to make a mint off the people who a) have the money to pay the subscription and b) really want to read quality journalism?

I know, I know. The answer is as simple as the classic movie imperative “Follow the money!” The Times and WSJ hope to make more from ads than from subscriptions. Newspapering is a business and we must never forget that, blah, blah, blah.

I would also like to think there’s something else behind, an altruistic goal put forward by a group of journalists who are quietly looking out for us all from the shadows. “Let them in,” these journalists say. “The basis of a strong and healthy democracy is a free and independent press, so let them in! Give them what they really need to be effective citizens and voters, not just what they need to be obedient consumers. Let them in!”

But, I’m a realist, not an idealist, and though my brush may get dipped in the inkwell of idealism from time to time, painting purple, I really don’t believe that there was much of that kind of thinking behind opening up the good newspapers to the public. Still, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the fruit of their business decisions.

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