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Free for All

sfchiefadIn Sunday’s Journal, Kiera Hay continued her investigation of what Santa Fe got from the half a million dollars it spent on “creative tourism.” Her first story appeared on September 27 and has been followed by two more: Who Paid for Conference Booze? and Nonprofit Claims City Owes $30K for Conference Work. A sidebar provides a detailed breakdown of the money spent for the Santa Fe International Conference on Creative Tourism last year. Expenses included $10,000 for a lackluster website — more government economic stimulus for the local web design industry.

This kind of good journalism takes effort and ambition, and I’m glad to spend the $110 a year it costs to subscribe to the Journal’s online edition. That comes to just 30 cents a day. The Journal is one of the few newspapers in the country that refuses to put its content on the Web for free. It pays a price for its obstinacy. If you search Google for “Santa Fe creative tourism,” none of Ms. Hay’s fine reporting will appear. Nor will you find Karen Peterson’s biting editorial on the subject.

In a blog called Journal Watch, Tracy Dingmann chides the paper for not getting into the spirit of the Internet Age. Information, she says, repeating a wornout mantra, “wants to be free.”

Does she mean libre or gratis? Free as in free speech or free as in free beer? People are naturally happiest when they don’t have to pay for the value they receive. That includes both readers and advertisers, who have been offering pennies on the dollar for online ads. My old employer, the New York Times, is by far the most widely read newspaper on the Internet, with more than 20 million unique readers a month. And like almost every other newspaper in the country, it is in a financial crisis, struggling to support the quality of its journalism with a diminishing income stream. One of the few newspapers that is profiting anymore is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Its publisher, Walter Hussman Jr., has been charging online readers for the last seven years. This month he was chosen by The Atlantic as one of the world’s 27 Brave Thinkers. You can read all about it online for free.

Most people I know in the journalism trade follow a blog (one of the very first) called Romenesko, which is a great, if depressing way to keep up with the news about the news. We read about pay walls, which mostly just serve to maintain the more lucrative print readership. We read about compromises — charging for “premium content” while everything else is free — and about micropayments, in which information would be metered like electricity. In the long run, journalism will find a way to make real money in a virtual world. Meanwhile I’m not at all convinced that the Journal has the wrong idea.

It was Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who first said “Information wants to be free.” That was 25 years ago, and he added an important qualification: “Information also wants to be expensive. That tension will not go away.”

Related posts: My Anti-blog, Ecovoyeurism

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review