I like reading and thinking about the future of news. I’m a news and journalism junkie, as well as a long-time Net user, so the topic is near and dear to my heart. I follow people online like Jay Rosen and Dan Conover, who provide pretty much a continuous flow of links to thoughtful postings regarding the evolution of news and journalism in modern Web era. Great, thought-provoking stuff. One of the more recent topics of discussion has been the recent “bring back the paywalls” meme, which could result in several of the large news organizations restricting their articles from the public Net. The NYT is talking about it, as is the Fox News group (see Murdock’s comments on the topic), as is Steve Brill, who has founded Journalism Online as a “digital publishing services company”.

When I read the arguments for these efforts, I just can’t wrap my head around it. Not that I think that making money is inherently evil or anything; not at all. It’s the I’m only going to let people SEE my stories that have paid me directly thing, like the Internet is akin to some sort of members-only club selling tickets at the door.

This model goes against the very nature and strength of the Web; the hyperlinking that allows sites of all sizes to relate useful topics, subjects, and references together. Breaking this ability breaks part of what makes tools like Google so useful; search sites USE those links to help determine which sites are authoritative on a given topic.

This is well-tilled ground, of course; newspapers have been in and out of the paywall game since news came to the Web. But 2009 is a year or crisis for papers, and news in general; the recession is affecting ad revenues, and the combination of that, the effect of sites like Craigslist on classified revenues (revenues which have supported news gathering at papers for generations), and burgeoning online content providers seems to have finally knocked the final supports out from under some papers. They’re starting to fall, and it’s starting to get ugly.

The latest iteration provides food for thought…I really like to try and understand where these folks are coming from. Are they visionary, or desperate to maintain the status quo? In a recent discussion with Steve Brill, Zachary Seward asks about how the news ecosystem of the web might react to Brill’s new endeavor (quote follows, but I encourage you to read the entire piece. It’s excellent):

Seward: There’s certainly a working theory out there that the minute any of those big-city papers start charging, they’re going to encourage competition that they don’t currently have. That the free blogs that are much derided now for not providing reporting will, in fact, you know, begin to put up much, much more competition—

Brill: Why? Why will they be able to? How are they going to pay for it?

Seward: Perhaps by starting with a model that is, you know, that isn’t a 150-person newsroom, and so even if the end product is not as good, it’s free, and that’s sort of the hardest thing to compete with.

Brill: But again, if what you’re striving for is to get the 5 or 10 percent of your most committed readers to pay, then you can afford to have that happen. And you can’t afford not to do it.

Wow. Again, the entire thing is well worth reading to get a better handle, but I can’t help but visualize a very confused dinosaur in a tar pit…

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