Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The New York Times and The Pay Per Use Model

I don't know how it developed, but it has become a common belief that access to information online should be free.  This means that to earn money, one must depend on advertising, which can be particularly problematic if you work in a social justice field.  With the print model quickly being shifted to digital,  a lot of traditional media outlets are having difficulty competing. The capitalist mode of exchange, means that people and or businesses, cannot afford to produce a product free of payment. The New York Times has chosen to challenge the common free access website, and has switch to a subscriber based model. 
As you may know, on March 17, we introduced digital subscriptions in Canada. The Canadian launching allowed us to test our systems and fine-tune the user interface and customer experience. On Monday, we launched globally. 
If you are a home delivery subscriber of The Times, you will continue to have full and free access to our news, information, opinion and other features on your computer, smartphone and tablet. International Herald Tribune subscribers will also receive free access to

If you are not a home delivery subscriber, you will have free access to 20 articles (including slide shows, videos and other features) each month. If you exceed that limit, you will be asked to become a digital subscriber. On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge. For access to the other sections within the apps, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber. 
The part of me that believes that access to information freely is vital to social progress does not like this idea at all.  There are already plenty of people who cannot access the internet in their home and if there is a switch to a pay per use model, poor people will have difficulty accessing information.  Simply because of the power of the internet, it is absolutely vital that all people and in particularly marginalized people have access to information unfettered by the bonds of exchange and yet this has a cost.

As a writer, I know how undervalued our work is.  The Huffington Post, which is the most read web based news magazine does not pay its writers, and instead offers exposure. This is clearly exploitation, as we know that Huffpo is not only turning a profit, but it pays editors, as well as various different positions to keep the site running.  Even when it comes to the issue of smaller blogs, money is very much an issue.  I am only able to write at the frequency that I do, because I have an income outside of this blog.  The reason many are not able to expand their brand, is based specifically on the free model that we have all come to expect on the internet.  This means that only certain voices will be heard, because they have the income to be able to support their work.  We are already at a place where marginalized people are not only outnumbered online as a whole, but are unable to compete with the larger blogs and news sources.  It is particularly problematic that the work of marginalized people whether they be of colour, trans, disabled etc., is devalued, because we know that these very same factors often effect the ability to make a living off line.

We are told that good writing stands out, and those that do good work will eventually make a profit, but that is not necessarily true for maginalized people using a gift exchange model.  It is further problematic that many believe that if you do advocacy work, that you should receive no payment.  I am in no way suggesting that social justice workers be paid in the millions, but in a world that demands 24 hour engagement, it is ridiculous to expect that people can maintain this pace for free.  Without some sort of support, these voices will disappear.  Thousands of blogs are started everyday, and few have the staying power of Womanist Musings, Shakesville, or TransGriot, yet the expectation of free consumption continues to exist.  Though many blogs have a donate button, donor based support is in most cases not even close to compensating for the time and energy that is invested. I can tell you that a donation to Womanist Musings is a rarity, rather than an everyday event.

While the writer and the bloger part of me supports the payment model, the social justice side of me recognizes its problematic aspects.  For now, it is just the New York Times, but we know that if their little experiment proves even remotely profitable, (not a difficult thing because they were not making anything before), then other news organizations and magazines, will quickly follow their example.  It will mean that writers who are clearly not respected as much as they should be (yep, cause we all know people who think they are just a few words away from the New York Bestseller List), will be able to earn a living at their craft.  It is a rare thing to make a living doing something your truly love, and even more so if that love is the printed word.

I know that there has to be some happy medium to this issue, but I have yet to come up with an answer.  What are your thoughts?   How do we keep the internet accessible to all, while still ensuring that a subsistence level income is possible?