No, giving away the news in the mid-’90s was not a misguided strategy

There are a few problems with the premise of New York Times reporter Edmund Lee’s long Sunday feature on reinvention efforts at The Wall Street Journal. We’ve been talking about this on Twitter, and I thought I’d share what I and a few others have been saying. Here’s the paragraph that Lee uses to frame his story:

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organizations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

This is wrong in virtually every respect.

First, in the early days of the web, there was no reason to think a general interest newspaper couldn’t thrive by giving away its journalism and supporting it with advertising. This was, after all, before Craigslist, Google and Facebook came along, and newspaper executives’ heads were filled with visions of multimedia ads that they would control. It wasn’t at all obvious in the mid-’90s that it wouldn’t work out.

Second, the Journal is not a general interest newspaper. It’s a specialty publication, and even in the days of the free web it was understood that actionable financial information was one of the few things that people would pay for.

Third, many if not most subscribers pay for the Journal through their expense accounts. Their employers wanted them to switch from expensive print subscriptions to relatively cheap digital.

Finally, and most important, is Lee’s truncating of Stewart Brand’s famous 1984 quote. Lee is hardly the first reporter to do that and thus leave a false impression. But in the case of the Journal, the part that gets left out is more important than the “information wants to be free” canard. Here is what Brand said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.*

The Journal epitomizes the “information wants to be expensive” part of Brand’s quote, because news that you can use to make money is by definition “valuable.”

The rest of Lee’s story is well-reported and interesting. But the paragraph he uses to frame it, fairly high up in the piece, is just a mess.

*Update: As Donna Halper points out in the comments, I used the cleaned-up version of Brand’s full quote that is usually cited. But, in fact, it’s not quite word for word — and Brand’s use of “almost” shades the meaning even further:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz [Brand was replying to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.

5 thoughts on “No, giving away the news in the mid-’90s was not a misguided strategy

  1. Steve Ross

    It could not possibly work out because almost all the students from my new media classes at Columbia, starting at the very beginning in 1993, went to work for new media companies — which outbid newspapers for the talent. What would you expect? And having gone cheap and lost, newspaper owners blamed Craigslist, Google and Facebook for their own stupidity.

    Contrast with, say, Mike Bloomberg, who said yeah, information indeed wants to be free. As competitors would come close to any of his data-laden services, he’d make them free… and start up even more sophisticated service features for his paying customers. Dow-Jones and Reuters would not or could not commit the resources Bloomberg was risking… and ultimately paid the price. WSJ closed its trading desk info business even before it started charging for the digital paper.

    Louise Story is a former student of mine. Brilliant, driven, great writer, and a really nice person. She juggled her part time work at Columbia Journalism with another part time program at Yale.

    She would make a GREAT top editor anyplace and Washington Post has to be looking at her.

  2. John P. Mello Jr

    Double negative in that headline, Dan! 🙂

    > Media Nation > Monday, April 12, 2021 7:29 AM > WordPress.com > Dan Kennedy posted: “There are a few problems with the premise of New > York Times reporter Edmund Lee’s long Sunday feature on reinvention > efforts at The Wall Street Journal. We’ve been talking about this on > Twitter, and I thought I’d share what I and a few others have been sa” >

  3. Donna Halper

    By the way, according to the link you helpfully provided, the quote is STILL inaccurate. It’s missing one very important word. The quote, as transcribed and recorded, asserts:

    “On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.”

    Information almost wants to be free… The word “almost” is regularly left out. I would suggest this is not a frivolous omission, nor is it harmless wordsmithing– like omitting “the point you’re making Woz”– Brand was in a debate with Steve Wozniak when the exchange occurred. The importance of the word “almost,” as I see it, is that Brand seems to recognize that absolutism isn’t useful here. Yes, journalists deserve to be paid. But also yes, the public sometimes deserves to see an important article and not be stopped by a paywall: the Washington Post is generally behind a paywall, but it makes its reporting on coronavirus available for free, for example. In other words, there need to be times when newspapers do in fact give something away. The question, of course, is which times, and what criteria should be used when making the decision.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Great catch, Donna. Looks like Brand’s quote got cleaned up a bit so that even the full context isn’t 100% accurate.

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