My good friend Yaron's latest post on for-pay content on the Internet gets it mostly pretty much exactly right:
So, let’s start off by agreeing that getting stuff for free is fun. Obviously I would rather go to an Iron Chef’s restaurant and eat for free than spend my hard earned cash, but sadly that is never the case and for quality food I need to open my wallet. People work hard to produce quality stuff and it is only fair they get paid for their hard work. [Ed.— emphasis mine]
Having said that,journalists need to be paid. A newspaper or magazine cannot live on charity, and we cannot rely on blogs to provide us with our news.
I think the basic idea here is spot on, but I do have a few things to add. The idea that "getting stuff for free is fun" is such an amazing and true statement that I'm incredibly jealous I didn't come up with it myself. This hits home on so many fronts, most of all piracy. Now yes, you can argue that people participate in piracy because they're fighting back DRM and all that business, and sure sometimes it's true. Most of the time it's complete bullshit. The fact of the matter is that people like getting stuff for free, and if there's an easy way to do that, they'll do it. I should know, I've definitely participated in this.
However, this doesn't mean that it's right and everything should be free; it's just not economically feasible nor sustainable. Creating content (especially good, quality content) takes time, effort, and money. The old Internet adage that information wants (nay, needs) to be free is just not completely true. Writing a good, well researched, well thought-out article is hard work, and the writer should be compensated for it (or if they're on payroll, then the publisher paying the writer should be compensated).
It seems that we have some sort of irrational mental block that makes us think that because it's online in a web browser, it should be free. I've tried to come to grips with this and understand it (even within myself) and I can't seem to figure out how this happened. People pay for software, people even pay $.99 for a damn fart app. But asking them to chip in a few bucks for an enjoyable and well-written article is along the lines of blasphemy. This is the reason publishers are so excited about the iPad. It's a brand new platform, a platform where its users are trained to pay for content from the beginning. And it'll work: people will pay for content on the iPad that they would never pay for from a web browser, even if it's the same content. I don't know if it's some kind of irrational value-assessment that people are making, or if it's just because iTunes is so damned easy to pay with, but it's there.
Having said all that, I'm not a complete capitalist and I do believe there are a few places where information can, and should, be free. Yaron mentions this as well:
Free content can be a positive thing. There’s even something philosophical about having free content/knowledge accessible anywhere at any time. I believe, to some extent, that it is the natural evolution of democracy. Wikipedia is the best example. Knowledge there is produced for and by the people.
I'm going to add to this and say that any kind of raw data or fact should absolutely be free. Reference materials (ie. encyclopedias), Government studies (like the census data), and even factual events like the news should all be free. I think this is the intention most of the time when arguing that information should be free. I'm also grouping news in with raw data and information. News like you see on CNN.com's homepage that is really just reporting back things that have happened (and honestly, most of the time they're just regurgitating something that came from Reuters) should be free and open to the public.
This distinction between editorial content and fact-regurgitation will become extremely important and is something that newspapers will have to deal with. I think a balance can be found where breaking news items can be free to the public as a public service (heck, maybe even subsidized by the government) while things like interviews, editorials, and fact-finding in-depth articles should be paid for to compensate the hard work that went in to taking the raw, free data and applying meaning to it. Data and information are free; finding meaning in that data is valuable.