Wednesday, May 10, 2006

If it ain't free I won't read it

If I come to a website that asks me to register in order to read their content, I usually go away. If I do register, I usually make something up. I'll often use a phone number I remember from some lamentably successful advertising: 407-W-Disney. I'll tell them I'm a 26 year-old female that makes more than $100,000 a year, and that my business is "other."

That got me into trouble once. I was trying to read an article on a British business website. It had to do with the technology I write about at my job, so I decided to register, but I had to use my work e-mail address to get the password. I must have used an obscene pseudonym because the site's editor e-mailed me back within minutes, horrified by my cheekiness. I and everyone at my office would be banned from accessing his site, he wrote. I was being terribly unprofessional.

I wrote him a jocund reply saying I was only trying to read an article, and that I meant no offense. He was disarmed by my manners and admitted in his next e-mail that his website's qualifications for readers were very restrictive, and that he was thinking of doing away with them. I'm guessing his aggressive response to my registration attempt was the result of a whole heap of phony registrations.

Finding a way to track your readership while maintaining a relatively open website is tricky. I'll register for some websites, like the New York Times, because I read it every day. I can't afford to get it delivered -- as I mentioned in a previous post, a year's subscription would cost me almost a month's rent.

But I won't pay for the Times' "Select" service because I'm part of the generation of Americans who believe everything on the web should be free. Last fall I volunteered for the Times' Great Read in the Park, a Sunday afternoon event in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library that has author readings, a used book sale, and panel discussions. A huge guy with freckles and a light, helmet-shaped afro came up to my post outside the panel discussion tent (where several Times columnists whose columns were now behind the "pay wall" of the website were talking on one of the panels). He was particularly livid about being denied access to Bob Herbert's columns, saying what good was Herbert's progressive platform if regular people couldn't afford to read it? This guy was so loud and indignant that several people outside the tent got nervous.

I agreed with him. But the problem isn't just one of democratic ideals, it's an economic one. We as web surfers don't see Internet writing as valuable because we cannot hold it in our hands. Being in the magazine business though, I keep hearing that if you don't charge for information, people won't think it's valuable. I'm aware of the irony of my writing all of this in a free blog, a blog that is ostensibly a replacement for a printed zine that I'm too lazy to produce.

But that brings me to another complaint: people have to register in order to comment on my blog. I don't like that. What that means is that the only commenter I've had so far is a friend ( who also has a blogger-based blog -- he doesn't have to sign up, he's already in the system. He also works in media -- the business side of it, even -- so I'm hoping he'll comment on this one. And I'd like to acknowledge baiting him with my post on the Minneapolis Star Tribune's ridiculous policy of charging its employees for paper copies of the very paper they write. What do you think, K?


Blogger k said...

Content is valuable, but expensive. The funny thing is that people will pay $10 to see a movie, but expect news to be free. The movie is entirely more engaging, so people place a higher value on it than news. News is important, but rarely cathartic. People pay for things that make them feel with less hesitation than for things that make them think. If you can do both, you can name your price. Hard news will always be a commodity. It only becomes valuable once it is employed to solve a problem, until that point it is just data. Like arsenic, news becomes important over time, when it aggregates and reveals trends of importance.
Most news is not worth paying for. But people will buy almost anything if they think it is rare, and the most timely breaking news to be reported is at least rare. Once the newness wares off, the value plummets.
Similarly, put a price on something and I assume that it is justified by more than ego. I hate to assume that ego is 95% of the cost. Value is relative. Especially for news.

Blogger comment verification prevents SPAM. Spam is polution, a negative externality that disrupts systems by making them less reliable and subsequently relied upon by fewer people. Polution sucks.

5:37 PM  

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