I’ve heard it said with the visionary breathlessness of a true believer: “Information wants to be free.”
My response? “Labor wants to be free.” If free information is a good idea, free labor is even better. So maybe you’d like to work for nothing?
And, of course, that’s what’s been happening to many who work for newspapers across the country. The latest of a string of misfortunes hit the Ann Arbor News. Having given away their information for free, newspapers are setting their labor free to go find other jobs.
The economy has only accelerated a trend that has been on its way for some time. Ten major newspapers are folding entirely or going exclusively digital, including The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
I hope it’s not too late for other newspapers to recover. The existence a free press is a key to democracy. But if there are no or few reporters, that is in jeopardy.
The music industry has begun to slowly turn around the orgy of freeness that Napster and its ilk unleashed a decade ago. The book industry, I think, has been watching and learning. We have appropriately been reluctant to put too much online too quickly for free or without restrictions. Kindle and others have done a decent job of making electronic purchases easy. Training a generation of readers and consumers that good content is worth paying for in whatever form it takes will ensure that quality content will continue to be created.
The American Founders clearly saw that an educated electorate was essential. That’s why they wrote the protection of free speech into the Bill of Rights, seeking to ensure that are free to pursue delivering informative, responsible content efficiently and cogently.
As the economy and publishing broadly speaking continue to move through major upheavals, we need to keep this in mind for the sake of the sake of jobs, yes, and also for the sake of the common good.