Free is expensive

Dr Patrick Carvalho
Insights Newsletter
10 May, 2019

Readers of The New Zealand Herald should welcome its recent introduction of a $5-weekly subscription to access premium content. So should non-readers.

If successful, New Zealand will benefit from an additional stream of high-quality journalism worth paying for.

As the global spread of media paywalls attests, informative and accurate online news is hard to produce solely via advertisement sales. (For one, robust analyses on politics, economics, and current affairs are not as “clickable” as homemade cat videos and tabloid stories.)

The problem with any “free” news service is that it is neither free nor transparent.

If the price for accessing the news equals zero, either the content has no value, which means the reader is paying with time and focus not spent elsewhere. Or worse, the reader is the product – and should not complain about falling for the clickbait pandemic or extraction of personal information.

Quite often, the promise of “free” internet content turns into a wave of copyright lawsuits, phishing scams, and predatory privacy breaches – only to re-emerge as a cornucopia of paid-subscription services such as Netflix, Spotify, Kindle Unlimited, and media paywalls (including the recently released Apple News+ bundle service).

The emerging subscription-based trend now represents the new normal, branded as Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) business. According to a 2018 West Monroe Partners report, the average American pays US$237 a month for subscription services, ranging from web-based software to video and music-streaming services, and yes, newspapers.

This is not to say “free” internet services are dying: Facebook and Google, among others, will continue to offer their services without upfront fees. But as we all should know by now, such services are not free but are paid with user data and clicks.

On that note, let us wish the Herald’s premium paywall a long life. In a post-truth clickbait world, journalism that is fact-based and well-informed is an even dearer commodity.

My two-cent advice: Just because something is free does not mean it is not expensive.

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