As of last week, The New York Times instituted a pay-for-access program for their web-based services. The success or failure of journalism in the digital age rests upon the success or failure of this move by The Times. If the experiment succeeds, it could very well save the future of reliable, accurate and in-depth reporting – the sort of reporting that's vital to the smooth workings of democratic society.
Internet users are accustomed to news access being free with the price of an Internet connection, and there is a valid historical reason for that: Online news services developed before a reliable and safe way existed to collect direct payment over the tubes. Thus, when online news agencies wanted to monetize, they went the route of online advertising in the form of pop-ups, built-in ads, flash ads and the other annoyances Internet users hate and often choose to block.
Given the popularity of ad-blocking software, online advertising revenue alone can't be expected to sustain a newspaper in the digital age. The print sector is seeing a steady decrease in subscriptions, so papers like The Times can't expect to fund their online component with revenue from the tangible product. The Times is in danger of failing and many other newspapers are in similar positions. Several thousand papers in the United States – mostly local rags – have gone belly-up already because they couldn't stay profitable.
If The New York Times' pay-for-online-access scheme takes the paper out of the red, it would mean saving the news industry as we know it. Newspapers provide the in-depth, detailed reporting that we cannot rely on television outlets to deliver. Their product isn't failing due to a lack of interest; it's failing because the industry hasn't figured out how to remain profitable when online newsreaders expect their product for free.
I expect the new system to be a marginal success. I don't think it'll make The Times the profitable venture it once was, but I think it will allow it to continue running and delivering an excellent level of quality in reporting.
I also expect the development of different "levels" of news available to online readers. We'll see pay sites like The New York Times, The Economist and maybe The Wall Street Journal delivering a very high-quality product to paying customers. We'll also see online outlets that continue to thrive on a combination of ad revenue and donations, but the news generated from them will not be up to the same standard.
I respect and cherish free access to information, but top news stories will always be found freely on the Internet for users that only require the headlines. As people once gathered in store windows to watch a breaking news release, Internet users will gather at free news sites for basic information and reporting.
However, for those of us who want or need the in-depth reporting and analysis which we've come to expect from outlets like The New York Times, that should be something for which we all have to pay. Journalists, editors and web lackeys all have to eat too, after all.