Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, famously said, "information wants to be free."
That's utter BS, of course. Information doesn't want a damn thing. It doesn't think, feel or breathe. Rather, it's us. We want information without the cost. We want our media diet to consist of a series of free lunches.
Though information isn't a huddled mass yearning to breathe free, it is, like water, slippery and liquid stuff that will fill any void. And for the past several years, that void has been the Internet.
Newspapers have done more than their fair share of feeding the insatiable World Wide Web with - what else? - free news. Many papers have guaranteed their own demise by training consumers to expect free content online.
That dynamic is changing, however, as news providers wise up to economic realities.
Many leading papers - the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News are but two examples - now ask readers to pay for print and online content. What an innovative concept! Paying for goods and services? Only in America ...
I may not like that I have to pay $30 a month to get access to the Times' online content, or that they still bombard me with ads that flutter and float across my iPad screen despite my subscription, but I'm a grown man. I understand that there really is no such thing as a free meal. Somebody is paying for it.
The Times, and other papers, go to great expense to bring vital information to thousands of readers. I respect that and I believe I should support it with my money.
We at the Summit Daily News give our papers away for free and put that same information online at no charge to the reader. Yes, that model is unusual for a daily newspaper, but the fact is, we still have to pay people to sell the ads, write and edit the stories, build the pages and physically deliver stacks of papers to newsstands. We still have to cover the costs of paper, ink and administrative expenses. And we don't just want to break even, we'd like to make a profit and grow our business.
(We are a business, by the way. Throughout my journalism career, readers have tried to corner me with the accusation, "You're just trying to sell newspapers." I tell them, "You're damn right we're trying to sell newspapers.")
OK, where am I going with all this?
We've received a fair amount of blowback from readers on the Google Consumer Survey questions that went live on the Summit Daily News website several weeks ago. If your Internet browser is set up properly, you should only have to answer two questions in a 24-hour period for full and free access to all of our online content. When we implemented this new feature, it didn't seem like it would prove to be major impediment to readers. However, it has not been a popular change.
Some readers were thoughtful and sincere in expressing their dislike of the surveys, others told us to "suck pondwater."
To those readers who have intelligently and courteously voiced their criticisms of the survey questions, I have give this response:
It is our opinion that answering two survey questions a day for full access to content is preferable to what some news sites are currently doing, which is charging money for content. Other news outlets also charge readers for paper editions. We don't do that, either. The challenge for us is how to support a team of hardworking reporters and editors and continue to offer free news to readers. As you know, it's a tough economy out there. Jobs are tight. Businesses don't have the money to spend on advertising that they once did. To me, a revenue stream like Google Consumer Surveys might allow us to retain a position or produce more meaningful, in-depth news for the community. The truth is, news isn't free. Someone's paying for it. Reporters, editors, ad reps and deliverymen work long hours and they certainly don't do it for nothing (though some of them might argue that point).
Our readers who have received this response wrote back to say that while they still don't like the surveys - too intrusive, too personal - they understand we're a business that's trying to make it just like anyone else.
One of our reporters was recently in a coffee shop. The barista, who knew the reporter, complained about the surveys. She said this as she took our reporter's hard-earned coin in exchange for a cup of coffee. The reporter jokingly suggested that because our paper's free, maybe the coffee should be, too. It's not a free lunch, exactly, but it's a start.