Six years ago, I wrote an article that appeared on Countercurrents, just as this one does. The piece was strident, even didactic, but was in large part a plea. The notion was to explain why the pathology of “free content” creates a race to the bottom in journalism. A byproduct of this is that — given the “no free lunch” truism, getting content for free — digitally for the most part — did indeed cost us all- in terms of privacy, dependence on Big Tech, and the degradation of quality in content in general.
Since that article was published, there have been some changes in the system, but nothing systemic. Journalists- the world over- have been reduced to freelancers foraging for projects and their daily bread. There is more nonsense on the web than ever and legitimate sites for content are throttled by Facebook, Google, and a host of other “agents of democratization” which are in reality anything but that.
Of course there are good signs. Magazines like The Atlantic, are growing- paid circulation if up about 50%. The emergence of platforms like Substack have offered some otherwise freelance authors the chance to make a good living (with the usual 1%’ers and the rest of us), and so on.
On the other hand, a variety of book publishers have initiated layoffs or are hesitant to accept new projects. Every time I read Wikipedia’s plea for $3, I am reminded on the parlous state of affairs.
Information dissemination, analysis, reportage, scrutiny-of-power, exposition — these are all critical parts of any sensible, functioning society. Great content/Great journalism is a key element of democracy, of the very notions of citizenship. Not to mention, intellectual pursuits and the acquisition of knowledge- even for its own sake- is a delightful way to engage with the world and to live life. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the examined life is bountiful and splendid.
We’ve grown accustomed to tech-drenched and easy solutions. We are willing to pay Netflix for programming but balk at the notion of paying for digital content. Even as we make fundamental decisions — about life, health, wealth, business — that could be enabled by the ingestion of incisive content, we hesitate to pay even a few dollars for it. We’ve been beguiled- by the PR mavens and shills who run Big Tech — into believing that we are given the gifts of free content as largesse.
As stentorian as I was six years ago, I am even more so now. Much more recently, I wrote a piece- again on countercurrents — which exclaimed the need to pay for good digital content. I dissected how “free content” works- there are systemic reasons why we see a race to the bottom in quality. “Free” content much produce some value for someone, else the non-zero cost of preparation, hosting, dissemination, and so on cannot be justified. Just as advertisers, sponsors, and so on underwrite “free” Google searches, someone has to underwrite “free” content. The underwriter typically does so in return for a stream of some action that is connected to an economic benefit like sales. The more actions the better and therefore the more content the better. More content implies a diminution in depth and thus quality. The cycle continues.
Cutting through this all is the concept of user/reader fees. Payment for a product or experience which in this case is content. If in fact we as readers underwrite the creation of content, we have the levers — we can pay more for well-researched content that supports key decisions in our personal and professional lives.
Remember the cliché, “You get what you pay for.”? Not entirely true in the world of things that matter- like affection, good spirits, and vitality. But in many matters, it indeed rings true. Most free content delivers the same value you paid to ingest it- nothing.
So please pay for great content. Or, to put it differently, please pay so you can get great content.