If Gutenberg Had Invented the Internet Instead

No such thing as the printing press. Straight to broadband. You get the idea.

Would anyone in our imaginary, digital-only world have questioned the idea of charging for the written word just because it was made available online? (Remember, it’s the only mode of distribution they have).  If so, then charging for news has always been taboo, and newspapers in the real world should have gone out of business long before the internet came along. But they didn’t.

On the other hand, if we think good and timely information is worth paying for, why should a different way of accessing it make it worthless? It shouldn’t. But you can’t blame us for not wanting to buy the cow when we’ve been getting the milk for free. Unfortunately, this cow happens to be dying.

Don’t get me wrong. I think an open Web that enables more information sharing and more diverse viewpoints is the best thing since, well, the invention of the printing press. But not at the expense of high-quality journalism. I’d prefer both.

Like everyone else, I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too, while deep down I’m hoping that something magical (hint: it’s not online advertising) is going to keep professional journalism alive without us having to pay for it. I’ve enjoyed the Fourth Estate’s work on my behalf for a long time but it stands to reason that if bona fide journalism ceases to pay the bills, then bona fide journalism goes away. If that happens, our democracy takes a hit and we bloggers are going to have a much bigger job to do (or a lot less to comment on).

Years from now, we may look back on the Times’ decision (and WSJ.com’s much earlier move to paid content) as the spasms of a dying business model. Or the most inevitable business transition in the world. We can’t know yet and the Times doesn’t really have a choice anyway.

For his part, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., is betting the ranch on our willingness to recognize – once again – the value of timely and accurate information, regardless of format, and pay a little something for it. When he said, “We can’t get this halfway right or three-quarters of the way right,” he was 100 percent right.

What happens next? If Gutenberg had only skipped the printing press and invented the Internet instead, we’d already know.