In paywalls we trust?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Information wants to be free

“Information wants to be free” was a hallmark principle of the generation that broke from the gray corporate world of computers and, in principle at least, worked to make computer/technology accessible to all.

“Information wants to be free” was more of a philosophical statement; information should have no “owners,” no one controlling (or profiting from) its direction or use.

“Open source” (as in Wikipedia and its dozens of imitators and progeny) is a current example of what “free” was intended to mean – at least by that first generation of hackers.

But “information”, like freedom itself, is also expensive. Gathering data, making sense of it, and getting it out to an audience is complicated.

Which is another word for expensive.

All the news that’s Fit to Print

In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, created the famous slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which still appears on the masthead of the newspaper today. He wrote the slogan as a declaration of the newspaper’s intention to report the news impartially. But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now.

Much of what fills most of our media platforms is far from being “fit to print”.

And, perhaps most pressing of all, who “decides” what news is “fit” to be printed?

And, especially in the media swirl that surrounds all of us, what might “fit to print” even mean?

Re-posting, or re-tweeting, has become a pale substitute for activism – or even caring about – any topic.

So-called “free” platforms (in any sense of the word) are perhaps the ultimate practical proof of yet another near-eternal proverb – you get what you pay for .

After all, it’s not that paper is so expensive (though, like everything else, it costs more than it used to).

Who should have access to information?

“Who should have access to information?” is one of the primary questions of any organized society.

Some authoritarian organizations (or individuals) hold a firm grip on any and all information.

Information is held in a near sacred trust – and only those who need to know have access.

Other societies (or business cultures) hold the opposite view – the more information more people have access to, the better.

Who needs to know? Who deserves to know? Who shouldn’t know? Who decides?


In those heady early days of hackers, everything was about access; education, assets, opportunity, travel and much more.

In those days, for example, several schools sought to be “free” in the same sense.

Many “free” schools sought to fit the school to the child instead of fitting the child to the school by facilitating, not coercing, interest and skill development.

Schools have their own kind of paywall – not paid by the students directly, but by their parents or neighbors, but questions apply in the same sense.

Who needs education? Who deserves an education that suits them? Who shouldn’t? Who decides?

What education and information have in common is that they both rest on a simple premise; curiosity, trust and self-confidence.

In both cases, we take as an assumption that life around us is worthy of our attention, that we can trust our news sources (and teachers) and, perhaps most important, that we can make sense of and productively use what we learn.

Paywall is a good metaphor

The term “paywall”, deliberately, presumably, brings up the image of a literal wall that one must “pay” to go through. In a very practical sense, some are allowed in, while others are kept out – perhaps temporarily, but possibly permanently.

A better metaphor might be a “pay gateway” – after all, we go through a gate, perhaps as a paying customer, perhaps only once, but a wall is a solid, impermeable presence deliberately designed to keep some out.

In times like our, when information is most critical, it is also the most restricted – and those who need it the most are kept from it the most.

You might think of information, and certainly education, as a form of leverage to be used in future situations.

Information and education hold the ultimate “multiplier effect’; every bit of knowledge, every skill acquired, every book read, pays back, one way or another, in the life of the person ever better equipped to face – and respond to – the challenges of life.

Information is power

“Information is power” is another one of those sayings that has been held as true for millennia.

Information, of course is never just information. Information is a tool, or even a weapon.

And, in many cases, weapons or tools are withheld.

An updated version of “information is power” is “Applied information is power”.

I’m not convinced.

Sometimes information, not applied, but held in reserve, is at least as powerful as “applied” information.

Sometimes information should be held back, or at least used in a subtle way.

Who pays for it?

Newspapers, especially local ones, are dying because of the quandary of how they should be paid for.

What if any newspaper, or any media, saw their readers as inquisitive individuals – who for their own reasons, felt respected as intelligent, responsible beings, free to move about and question burning issues that are not sealed off from the outside world – or caught in the vortex of a media-sponsored echo chamber?

Who deserves information?

My bias is that everyone “deserves” timely and thorough (and compelling) information.

To put it mildly, this is not practical. But what access to information and education is?

I’d argue that paywalls have led as many newspapers and media sites to oblivion as to sustainability.

Paywalls, all too often, are the crucial step into a death spiral as readership declines, advertising plummets and every number that matters is in the red.

Perhaps newspapers, and other media, should reconsider their core purpose.

Maybe instead of printing (and selling) “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, newspapers should, by whatever means, get their product into the hands that need it most.

Perhaps it’s not the information that is being “sold” and just maybe, it is not the reader who should be charged – at least not before reading.

What if readers were not compelled to pay for their reading? What if, for example, readers registered (for free). We all know what that would do to subscription rates. Advertisers would have access to dedicated and informed readers. Readers would have a valued and trusted news source. The media death spiral could be averted.

My bias for several years now has been that paywalls only accelerate the trajectory into bankruptcy

My other bias is the belief that a thriving (and free) press is the most reliable safeguard for any and every stable and free society – which means that we should all do whatever we can to save our free press – and we all lose if it falters.

And this is where most articles about the value of America’s free press usually end.

Yes, our free press is crucial to our society, but what can we do?

Corporate branding to the rescue

What if, at least for this difficult time of transition, large business with a local presence offered to sponsor or underwrite local media?

Here’s what that could look like; what if Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and a few others “sponsored” one day a week of a local newspaper?

Starbucks, famous for its lounge-style coffee shops, for example, could host Sundays. “Sunday mornings with Starbucks – even if you are not at one our stores” could be their marketing slogan.

National Public Radio (NPR) has a voluntary funding model – with day or program sponsors.

Maybe Microsoft could sponsor the sports pages – or the editorial pages?

Who wouldn’t want to sponsor the comics pages?

No matter who does it, or to what degree, it does a lot more for the local community than a moon shot.

The bottom line though, is that information, in a financial sense, is never “free” – but at the same time, nothing guarantees our freedom more than a free press.

The history of “Information wants to be free”

You can see a brief conversation here between Steve Wozniak (AKA, Woz, co-founder of Apple) and Stewart Brand (editor of The Whole Earth Catalog) at the first hackers conference in 1984 (when the word “hacker” was a positive thing) here. This is the first occurrence of the idea (or statement) that information wants to be free.