Monday, June 4, 2012

Tragedy of the Commons

The supposedly free internet is coming to an end. This might not be an entirely bad thing. After all, it might disabuse many of the notion that information should always be free. But I'll put aside my grumpiness about kids' belief that Wikipedia represents a great revolution in human understanding for a few moments. 

I've been following stories about newspapers cutting their publication. New Orleans' big daily newspaper will now publish only three days a week and will move its subscriptions over to the internet. I think it's only a matter of time until others do the same, though some (like the New York Times) will be able to hold out for some time. And perhaps it's time that we who value good journalism financially support the sources from which we get our news. Good journalism costs money, and I'd rather have good journalism at a relatively small price than lousy journalism for free. 

Facebook's IPO, I think, is opening a lot of eyes to the underwhelming revenue that comes from online advertising. It's a model for paying for services that works well for Google and that's about it. Most of us have conditioned ourselves to just ignore the cheap ads that finance Facebook, and we tolerate the more sophisticated ads that make us wait 10 or 15 seconds to read that story on the Times or Post. It might say a very good thing about us that we have tuned out the tacky advertisements. 

Eventually our social networks will have to experiment with charging for premium content, a premier service that might allow us to do more than just post and poke. We might find that they have interesting services worth our money. Or not. One can see media outlets laying the groundwork for this, such as at where they mark certain journalists as "Insiders." It's only a matter of time until that website is charging for people to read what their exclusive insiders have to say. To that, however, I have no choice but to yawn. Sports is really hitting the law of diminishing returns for me (with one exception: playing wiffle ball with my kids in the back yard).  

So if we start paying more to digest web content, what will we stop spending money on? My money (no pun intended) is on cable TV, which I think suddenly has much to fear. The advertisement I heard on the radio for a Spike TV show about horrible tenants didn't really make me mull over the awesome offerings on pay television. Perhaps the print magazine industry will get hit harder than they already are. 

But if I could go back to newspapers for a moment . . . I recall reading a former editor of a local newspaper mulling over a decision at the beginning of the century made by his paper to upgrade their presses to a new state-of-the-art means of publishing their dailies. He regretted not taking that capital investment and plowing it into an ahead-of-the-curve means of publishing digitally. Now I don't think the public was ready to support that business decision with subscriptions that would pay for that upgrade. But we might be seeing newspapers live out the credo "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

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