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Want high-quality news? Pay for it.

Google, Yahoo, and The Huffington Post make money on free content by externalizing the costs of production. It's time to change that. Contrary to popular belief, information does not want to be free. Creating good information is expensive – and it should cost us something.

By Bill Davidow / May 13, 2011



Menlo Park, Calif.

I’m not convinced that information can be personified. I doubt very much that it is conscious or that it possesses a soul. But I do know that – contrary to popular belief – it certainly does not want to be free. Automobiles, houses, and diamonds do not want to be free, either. The digerati who sold the “information wants to be free” slogan to the world were really saying that they did not want to pay for information, music, movies, or any other form of information. Businesses that grew profitable giving away free information were also big supporters of the concept.

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Creating good information, great music, and outstanding films is expensive. Of course there are people – myself included – who produce information without expectations of making money. I write because I hope my books and articles will help influence thought and policy. But in general, if we want to have great investigative reporting, accurate and well-written news, and broad coverage of events, we had better come to grips with having to pay for it.

Producing good information requires hard work. Research has to be done. Facts have to be checked. Material has to be edited. Writers and reporters have to be trained. Words don’t just roll off people’s off fingertips and onto the computer screen. Well-crafted prose is the result of hours of effort spent honing sentences and paragraphs.

Information, of course, shouldn’t be expensive merely because it’s costly to produce, but because it’s valuable. The person behind the “free” slogan, Stewart Brand, put it brilliantly in 1987: “Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine – too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away.”

Today, however, this tension is out of balance. One of the truths of economics is that if you sell something for less than it costs to produce, you’ll produce less – or none – of it. That’s what’s happening to news outlets across the country. If revenues get low enough, the only content they’ll be able to publish is from individuals like myself, people with little economic motivation.

So here is what the individuals who liberated information really meant to say. We can get away with making information free as long as we can externalize its costs. This is easy to do in an overconnected world, and here’s how it works: Externalizing costs means making someone else pay for what you use or do. That is what the banks did during the 2008 financial crisis. They made profits and passed the costs of the bailout onto taxpayers. In the case of information, Google News – to cite just one example – can take the information that others produce, distribute it broadly over the Internet, and make money by selling ads.

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