NOT-SO-FREE PRESS. Duty calls, but I want to say a quick word about the New York Times Company's decision to start charging for some online content from the Times, most notably its op-ed-page columnists - a move so startling that it managed to penetrate the blogworld yesterday even in the face of the Newsweek controversy.
First, this is an admission that a business model has failed, at least for now. The whole idea of Web publishing was supposed to be that, by chucking the need for a printing press and a distribution system, the costs of manufacturing would be so much lower that there would be no need to charge readers. The model would be over-the-air network television, paid for entirely by advertisers. Unfortunately, Web advertising, though healthier than it was immediately after the dot-com bust, has never lived up to expectations. Then, too, it's interesting that the Web-as-broadcasting model is striking out even as television-as-broadcasting is declining in the face of competition from cable, satellite, and various pay services.
Second, this is a real blow to the idea of a blog-driven national conversation - a point made by many bloggers already, and put especially well here by Andrew Sullivan. It's hard to link to Times columnists if you can't be sure your readers don't have access to them. The Wall Street Journal realized this and started up OpinionJournal.com, a free site for its opinion-mongers. But the Times is moving in precisely the opposite direction, charging only for its opinion writers. The Journal also has a workaround that allows bloggers who are subscribers to provide links that will work even for non-subscribers. I hope the Times does the same. A cautionary example: the New Republic has virtually disappeared from this conversation since it went to a subscription based model, despite offering oodles of sharp political commentary.