This is the question that daily newspapers should have asked themselves in the 1990s, when the internet was first taking shape. Back then, no one thought that the print paper could be undercut by the internet. (Do you remember the sound that your dial-up modem made and how long it took to download a picture?)
By the early 2000s, everyone was “trained” to expect everything on the internet to be free. That’s a contributing factor in why paywalls don’t seem to be more successful than they are. Well, that and the fact that consumers will just click away to one of the multitude of free news sites. The Times and the Post are bucking that tide of “freeness,” and they aren’t finding it easy.
Today, the question needs to be not “should online news reading be made available for free?” but rather “since news websites are free, what is our responsibility to see that news sites can stay in business?”
News is a business: you have to have money to pay reporters and editors, etc. Web advertising has proved inadequate for serious news organizations. And remember, I started with newspapers, not the weekly supermarket tabloids whose spirit lives on – and has made a profit – in clickbait celebrity gossip and other forms of sensationalism. If we want good journalism, we have to find a way for the Times and the Posts of all sizes to stay in business.
I submit that we’re at the same sort of point as we were in the ‘90s. If we don’t confront the question “what are we willing to do to ensure that good journalism remains widely available?” we may find ourselves having to pay for decent news sites or wishing that we could. Twenty years from now will find us in a different world: I hope that, like newspapers today, we’re not looking back and wishing that we had done something differently.