Paying for Quality Information

For the first long while of the internet, the push for everything seemed to be toward making everything free. Companies were happy just to have their pages used, so the content there was free. Bloggers popped up by the thousands overnight, with all of them happy to push out their own content, gratis. File sharing was enormously popular, with platforms like Napster letting users swap music files back and forth, much to the consternation of media conglomerates.

After those first wild west years were behind us, everything seemed to shift from “free” to “monetized.” Google was happy to let you use its service for free, as long as it could embed ads in its search results. Facebook did the same. YouTube has followed suit, and it’s fairly ubiquitous at this point. The saying went, “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” and that’s still largely true.

But what I’m beginning to see is a swing in a new direction. A swing back to paying for content, because it’s worth it. There are a ton of free books out there right now you could buy. Amazon has gobs of them on Kindle. But people are still ready and willing to pay for books. Why? Because they’ve seen a difference in quality. There are great free books out there, sure. But finding them, sifting through the tons of other books, is a real slog. It’s worth it to pay some money for a book that someone else has done that effort for you.

Likewise, there’s a whole ton of free information out there. Many, many people are ready and willing to tell you just about anything you want to hear, when it comes to the news. Yes, much of the free stuff is biased (and so is much of the paid stuff), but for the last long while, that hasn’t seemed to matter. Free beat out quality.

These days, I’m thinking quality beats out free, and that’s why news organizations have been able to start charging for subscriptions. The Washington Post. The New York Times. The Atlantic. Places with trained editors and paid staff. Because you can get much better information when people do something professionally, by and large. (We can have a different conversation around organizational bias by different institutions, but that’s not for today’s discussion.)

I expect to see this trend continue for the next few years at least, as we finally begin to reach a sort of balancing point between what people are willing to pay for quality information. The problem is, because quality information will continue to cost more than nothing, there will be an uphill battle persuading people who don’t pay for information that the things they’ve been reading might not be as accurate or informed. In other words, taken to its extreme, free and abundant shoddy information is a big threat.

What can we do about it? I’m honestly not sure. On the one hand, you could get around it by having a state-sponsored information channel, but that makes me skittish for clear and obvious reasons. It’s all fine and good while the state is trustworthy, but what if that stops being the case? I suppose you could somehow enact some kind of legal protections around that subsidized information source, but again, those are only as useful as the enforcement behind them.

You could argue information should just be free, period. But that’s not how it’s been able to work in our society. Reporters need to eat, and they need time to really investigate different issues. They should be compensated for the time they spend on investigating, so that they can eat. The better compensation they get, the more likely we are to get quality information in return.

I’m not sure I have a conclusion here. Just the general observation of a problem, and the statement that, while I used to be obsessed with getting everything for free, I’m believing more and more there are some things that are just worth paying for. Information is one of those.


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