Journalism

The problem with paid content: You

December 26, 2013: 7:52 AM ET

It's nearly 2014. Why are we still debating the value of paying for good, quality journalism?

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FORTUNE -- Anyone who follows me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook knows a little something about my reading habits. Although I like to think I'm as proficient at and knowledgeable about social media as anyone my age -- see the feature Jessi Hempel and I recently wrote about the buzzy mobile application Snapchat -- my journalism consumption is fairly old school. I get three newspapers delivered to my doorstep, and I also subscribe to numerous magazines.

A few comments on these "old-media" publications and how I use them.

First, I pay for them. Second, I avidly use their web, phone, and tablet versions too, switching back and forth among media over the course of the day, depending on a wide variety of factors, including where I am (at home, in the office, in a taxi) and what I'm doing (sitting at the kitchen table, lying in bed, battling boredom at a meeting).

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I read all sorts of things, including e-mail newsletters, blogs, and other things I find on social media -- primarily Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook -- but the overwhelming majority of the articles from which I get true value are the old-media publications for which I pay. As a journalist with a public profile and a social media presence of my own, I also share what I read with people who follow me. A recent spate of items I shared perfectly illustrates my point. Over the course of one weekend I shared the outstanding series the New York Times wrote about the plight of a homeless girl in New York, the shocking reporting by the Wall Street Journal about lobotomies performed on World War II veterans in the U.S., and my own colleague Peter Elkind's exhaustive and penetrating examination in Fortune of Bloomberg LP at the precise moment its founder, departing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, is about to return to his company.

It's no coincidence that each of these likely prize-winning reports appeared in publications that require readers to pay. Each cost the organizations involved serious money to produce. Each built on the experience of the journalists involved and the credibility of institutions that backed them.

Now, there is no one right way to charge for content. The Times uses a metering method, meaning that a casual, non-paying reader could view all of the Dasani series without paying. The Journal arbitrarily makes some of its journalism available for free, according to its own mysterious methodology. Fortune puts nearly all of the journalism that appears in the printed magazine behind a paywall, while it makes all its web-specific articles, including this essay, available for free. (Go figure.) Nor is there unanimity among traditional media regarding charging at all. The magazine Vanity Fair made Bethany McLean's outstanding profile of Marissa Mayer available online for free. I assume that Vanity Fair believes it can generate enough digital advertising and, more importantly, drive subscriptions to its magazine that way. It is the publication's prerogative.

What grates, however, is the sense I keep hearing from people of my generation and younger that they don't need to pay for journalism. They treat the paid model as somehow quaint and even chastise people like me for posting articles on social-media sites that aren't available for free. Yet what is beginning to dawn on people is that there's a sameness to what is available for free. Investor Hunter Walk captured this in a recent post about Jessica Lessin's new trade publication The Information. He praised her as much for the content she is omitting as for what she is producing. Lessin is aiming for a narrow audience, a business model as old as stock newsletters and conspiracy theorists cranking out pamphlets in their basements. The point is that she is charging for something, and she will succeed only if what she produces is unique and desirable.

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Media theorist Jeff Jarvis has become famous for saying that "should" isn't a business model (or something like that). I agree. I'm not advocating that consumers should pay for journalism out of some sense of duty. I'm saying that you're not the citizen you ought to be if you don't read the Times on homelessness and the Journal on shocking governmental behavior, even decades after the fact. And you can't possibly be the businessperson or media executive you need to be without reading Fortune's take on a key competitor. In other words, if you're unwilling to pay, you're the loser, not us.

I recently met a senior executive at a major Silicon Valley company who doesn't read newspapers or magazines (or, I presume, books) because she doesn't have time, she said. The more I think about it, the sadder it makes me -- for her, for her company, and for our society. She thinks she only has time to read the specialized and highly germane material that flows into her inbox because she is too busy with the tasks at hand. I'm willing to bet that over the long haul her competitors who take time to broaden their horizons, to read about other kinds of people, who take seriously their responsibilities as citizens and leaders will win out over her in the end.

I can't confidently predict what that victory will look like. But I know it won't look like the ignorance of someone who can't -- or won't -- pay to read the high-quality journalism that's all around them.

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