Know that annoying McDonald's commercial? The one with the oh-so-sweet guy with the way too curly hair, who finds himself at the gates of hell, which to his surprise is actually a rather pleasant, well-lit joint full of attractive young women.
When one of the women serves him a big juicy hamburger and he tries to take a bite, hell reveals itself by clamping an iron muzzle on his mouth. Well, that’s what hell is for the hamburger advertiser.
That specific commercial came to mind after the first presidential debate
between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney when I wanted to read New York Times' scathing columnist Maureen Dowd’s commentary.
The homepage of NYT’s iPad application looked appealing more than ever following its recent makeover. I quickly browsed to Dowd’s column. However, just like in McDonalds’ commercial, I get the following message: "Wait, this is just getting interesting."
Anyone can enjoy browsing through the headlines of New York Times online; however, only subscribers can access all of its content. In other words – please pay up. Could it be that the entire NYT marketing team is made of McDonald's graduates? I mean, all I wanted to do is read Maureen Dowd’s column, for heaven’s sake.
I admit that eventually I read the said column without paying. I outsmarted them: I marched right into my study, powered up my PC and read the column that was still available free of charge via computers and offered somewhat cheaper subscription rates.
It just goes to show you that the NYT is undecided on how and when to charge readers without losing too many of its readership on its various platforms.
Many of you are probably familiar with that experience from other news sites such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, which have paywalls for some time now, or perhaps you’ve encountered such requests from other websites and applications which now – with either little choice or little desire – are charging users for viewing content.
As a consumer, it’s pretty hard for me to scale the paywall – no one likes reaching into their pocket. I have grown accustomed over the years to reading quality content free of charge. Yet I’ve also come to realize that free can mean a much higher price than I anticipated.
Most of the world’s content providers, including major newspapers, were tempted to offer free online content to all. In fact, the newspapers provided the financing – and still do – for their digital platforms, hoping to attract more “eyes”, thereby increasing exposure and earnings from advertising without having to charge subscription fees.
Independent news sites, which were established without the financial backing of a newspaper, also sought to establish readership. Consequently, within just a few years, news, information and journalistic content have become an accessible and readily available product throughout the world.
This was a revolution that dramatically affected the lives of billions, and to paraphrase on New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman’s headline, the world had become flat. Indeed, the world became more democratic: Vital and useful information is now available at a click of a button – from Washington to Benghazi, from London to Beijing, and it’s all for free.
But while we were all ecstatically hurtling down the information freeway to a world of borderless information, one of the foundation stones of democracy, journalism, had an unfortunate accident. We the readers, or consumers, have grown accustomed to the idea that information, no matter how important, how valuable or how painstakingly gathered, is free, like the air we breathe.
It was nice to believe for a moment that information does not have to be paid for. But the truth of the matter is that someone was footing the bill for the information, news and commentary we were consuming and we never stopped to consider what the cost was in terms of quality and how well information could be shielded from bias and spins under such circumstances.
We agreed to intake free air supplied by sources that may or may not have an interest to mix that air with other elements, not necessarily healthy.
The bottom line is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Neither is there such a thing as truly free news. Free information comes at a cost, often manifested as promotional content disguised as news. Content providers, online news sites and newspapers which depend on earnings from advertising and do not charge users for their services are rapidly becoming the advertisers’ puppets and a pawn in the hands of parties with an interest of controlling information. Sometimes it’s governments, other times a tycoon who wishes to dictate to the public who will be in the government.
Before the Internet’s big bang, and before the age of social networks, smartphones and tablets, newspaper revenues were derived from advertisers, readers and subscribers. The math was simple – a large and stable readership meant the paper was less dependent of advertisers, did not have to curry favor with government and could not have its wrist twisted by parties at interest.
As it turns out, this principle is also true for news websites and smartphones . Any citizen who desires to live in a free, democratic and just society must accept the fact that he must bear part of the financing of the news he consumes, otherwise we are at risk of receiving tainted news.
The information revolution, which enabled the promulgation of free news on a growing number of digital platforms, did wonders for making information accessible to all. It is time society takes a good hard look at the price it is paying for free news. Those who wish to receive credible, non-manipulated news are cordially requested to please open their wallet – be it the good old leather kind or an electronic one.
You decide what kind of news you wish to read. If you desire to consume information gathered by hardworking reporters, verified, cross referenced and subjected to stickler editing and according to which you may safely make personal and national decisions – such as who to vote for in the next general elections, which banks and insurance companies are trustworthy or which supermarket chain offers fair prices – then it behooves you to subscribe to your favorite news site, even if it does charge a fee like the leading global news sites do.
If it is unadulterated, credible information you seek, and not paid-for content that is skewed and wrapped in ulterior motives, you’ll have to pay for it. Truth is not free, nor is it half free. Indeed, it is rather expensive. It may cost money but it’s worth its weight in gold. Truth is clean air, and I’m more than willing to pay for the air I breathe. I hope many others are as well.
Yoel Esteron is the founder and publisher of financial daily Calcalist
This article was originally published in Hebrew