Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand’s unforgettable dictumfrom 1984, “Information wants to be free,” turned out to be correct. For more than two decades, newspapers, magazines and Web startups gave their goods away in hopes of attracting huge numbers of readers whose eyeballs could be sold to online advertisers. Give the stuff away, publishers decreed, and make money off of online advertising.
Brand made a second point in the same breath, though. It never carried as far or as wide, but it has proven remarkably prescient: “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.” Audiences still crave free content, of course, flocking to Yahoo News, the BBC, HuffPost, CNN.com and other such sites. But advertising-supported news could never monetize all those clicks as well as could Google, Facebook and Amazon, which ultimately cornered the online ad market. That triopoly now collects about 90 percent of all online ads in the U.S. and half of all U.S. ad spending.
Searching elsewhere for revenue, publications are increasingly turning to readers’ wallets to earn their keep and an information-wants-to-be-expensive juggernaut has left tread marks all over the mediascape.