How would news organizations charging for access affect, say, the internet as a human right?

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Wednesday June 3, 2009.

I came across a couple of stories the other day that were unrelated but quickly became related in my mind as I read the second one. With the talk that I’m hearing about the death of newspapers (sometimes equated completely wrongly with the death of journalism), and the other talk among journalism pundit-types (Jay Rosen, Steve Yelvington, others) of plans by some news organizations to monetize web content by creating firewalls and account-system access, I thought a particular quote from an interview with the author Michael Lewis was particularly poingnant:

When I published my first pieces for publication 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, if I published something in The New Republic, it might get a few readers who subscribe, and if it’s really good it might get Xeroxed and passed around. But now, the readership is vast and global. So that bodes well. I just assume that where there’s demand, the world will figure out how to monetize that.

Lewis goes on to say that he thinks we’re all “too well read” (gasp!) because of the foreverness of the web. He might be right, but I don’t really care. Although, I presume that to mean that, along with the quote above, he’s saying that making the information scarcer might be a good thing. I can’t disagree with that more, as a lot of you might suspect. I like reading as much as I do on a daily basis. For instance, if I hadn’t ever been granted access to the web, I might never have come across this from Boing Boing:

Here’s a prediction: in five years, a UN convention will enshrine network access as a human right (preemptive strike against naysayers: “Human rights” aren’t only water, food and shelter, they include such “nonessentials” as free speech, education, and privacy). In ten years, we won’t understand how anyone thought it wasn’t a human right.

Put those two stories into a similar context and we have something pretty interesting happening. On the one hand, we have an author whose stuff I read almost as if my life and interests would suffer if I didn’t saying that he thinks we’re already too well read (read: informed?) versus another whose stuff I rarely like saying that so much of the world is uninformed, but soon a change is coming, and that’s a great thing. Throw in a little bit of charging for access and you have yourself a bit of a storm, right? I think so.

I think Lewis is just a bit out of touch in his comment. I think Doctorow is right on. And I think anyone saying that news organizations should charge for access is a complete moron. As soon as there is yet another financial barrier to getting information that’s supposedly important to societies, you lose another group of people that (in the case of important information) should get access to it. If a well informed public is a more active and engaged public, who the hell in their right mind would advocate the taking of information away from that public? Besides politicians, of course.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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