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Friday, October 1, 2010

Information Wants to be Free

Over at The Boston Globe we have Columnist Brian McGrory writing about the phrase "information wants to be free".  He uses that expression to mock the idea that newspapers can continue to provide content to the public on the web without charging for it.
Seriously, for the better part of the last decade, every high-brow thinker in the new media business has condescendingly repeated a phrase that is somehow as insidious as it is inane: Information wants to be free.
However, he understands the phrase differently from myself.  I take it to mean that information wants to burst out from behind firewalls and spread itself out for all to see.  And, apparently I don't fully understand it, at least per the Wikipedia definition, to be found here.  And, the expression goes back 25 years, not ten, to "Stewart Brand at the first Hackers' Conference[,] in 1984":
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.  So you have these two fighting against each other.
This conception was modified in 1990 by Richard Stallman and is closer to my understanding of the expression:
I believe that all generally useful information should be free.  By 'free' I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one's own uses... When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.
Mr McGrory applauds the fact that his parent company is forcing a change in policy at The Boston Globe, to make people pay for access to a new web site, to be known as "".
Yesterday’s announcement was a game-changer to all this, a better-late-than-never victory for those of us who believe we should have been charging all along. Readers will still get a choice. will remain free, with news updates through the day, but sometime next year Globe stories will live and hopefully thrive on a paid site,

Free doesn’t begin to pay for the expensive journalism that’s produced here.  Free doesn’t pay for reporters who keep public officials and major institutions honest, and expose them when they’re not.  It doesn’t pay for the best critics in the country, as we have.  It doesn’t pay for some of the best education reporters, the most attuned environment and public health reporters, sophisticated political reporters, tireless sports reporters, sharp financial reporters, and the restaurant critic who keeps chefs on their toes.

Free doesn’t fund stories that expose corruption in the state’s Probation Department, or lead to an overhaul of the pension system, or cost the House speaker his job.  Free doesn’t shake the Vatican to its core.

Sure, some people will think us crazy, charging for what we do. But free doesn’t keep this place in business, which makes this plan not all that radical after all.

Or is that supposed to be "Capitalist Pig!"?

And "shake the Vatican to its core"?  I thought the core was the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and his subsequent resurrection.  Or maybe it is transubstantiation.

I think Mr McGrory is playing the high-brow intellectual, talking condescendingly to those of us out on the world wide web.  But, I take his point about the MSM having to make money.  And here is the official announcement from The Boston Globe, complete with picture of Publisher Christopher M Mayer.

I was surprised to find that Bates College, his alma mater lists Mr McGrory under "Arts and Letters" rather than "Business", given that Mr McGrory seems intent on making the point that he is in a business.

For those of you out on the world wide web, you can whine at Mr McGrory at  But, you should read his whole article first.

Regards  —  Cliff

1 comment:

Craig H said...

I'm always amused to read "business" people whining that they deserve to be paid more. Such people aren't businesspeople, but, rather, beggars.

The key to "business" is providing goods and/or services for which people find themselves compelled to pay. In the case of all the high-minded services listed, that Mr. McGrory is allegedly providing to the community, I would observe, prima facie, that the public is already not finding them of such value. (Or why else would the Boston Globe already be going out of business?)

We can all argue about why that might be so, but we cannot argue that Mr. McGrory and his ilk are going to be sadly disappointed when the world doesn't beat their path to his door, for his old and tired and already-proven-unmarketable journalistic mousetraps.

I'd be much more impressed if one of these old-school newspaper people could finally figure out the math on this.