Yesterday The Times‘ paywall went down and everyone went mad, bingeing on Caitlin Moran columns, and presumably news stories as well. Moran herself was enthusiastically tweeting links to stuff she’s written for them. It’s understandable, something you usually have to pay for was free for a limited time; no matter how supportive you are of paywalls in general, it’s a good deal. If your local ice cream shop starts handing out peanut butter gelato, you get yourself at least five cones. Six. No more than seven. But it also makes it clear how many people don’t normally read The Times, presumably because they consider the £2 a week subscription fee prohibitive, and because other newspapers are online for free.
Also yesterday, The Guardian (which is free) featured an article looking at the apparently unavoidable and all but unsolvable problem of digital press, and the unsustainable expectations that have been set up by years of professional news and media sites not charging. Which is hardly an indefensible thing; information should be free, the news should be easy to access. But the effect of it is the undervaluing of the work that goes into it.
And it’s not just the news. It’s content in general.
In the olden days, when the internet was new and shiny, and only an intrepid few were braving its strange shores, it was the way for writers to get ahead. If you had a popular blog, you could probably get a book deal, but that golden age is long over.
There is just too much on here, and all of it’s free, so why would anyone pay for the same thing in print? I am constantly finding great sites full of quality stuff and thinking, “Gee, I’d like to write for these people,” but they can’t pay so I don’t. Well, I do, actually. I write for free for three sites at the moment (included in this list), because they’re fun and I want to support what they’re doing. I want to support what they’re doing because I want them to be successful, and by successful, I mean financially sustainable. But honestly, I don’t know how that’s going to happen.
In addition, there are many times when I read something (like some of these blogs) and think “The person that created that deserves to be rewarded for it.” But they probably won’t be.
Maybe there’ll be a sudden collapse and a revolution that will bring forth a solution, but I doubt it. It’s more likely to just get harder and harder, and as it does, the quality will get lower and lower. There will always be someone willing to write for free, no matter how many times excellent people like John Scalzi campaign against it. But less a writer is paid, the less time they have to write, the less time they have to write, the lower the quality will be. A really well-researched, imaginatively written, and thoroughly edited thousand word piece has hours of work behind it, as well as years developing the skills to produce it. And those hours spent should be well recognised.
There are people trying to fix the problem. People like the good dudes behind Flattr, which I’ve already raved about here, and which, according to their business development manager (who’s commented at the bottom of that article) is genuinely getting people some well-deserved green.
Any solution, however, is going to be in the hands of the consumer. It’s going to be in people really becoming aware of how much they value what they read, and how they want to recognise it. It’s simple: if you want to see more of the stuff you like, you have to help make it easy for the people behind it to keep going.
You have to show them how much you want it.