Why is news free ?

Substack, the tool I use to send this newsletter to you, turned one today!

TechCrunch :

“In fact, the company says there are more than 25,000 paying subscribers for Substack -powered newsletters (up from 11,000 in July). And newsletters published on the platform reach a total of 150,000 paying active readers.”

This pushed me to write today about something I have started thinking about once again over past few days.

Why do we expect information to be free? More specifically, why should news be free? We are making big trade offs in wanting news for free. Before the advent of the internet, we paid for news. It is popular to say how information should not be limited to those who can pay for it. Some even go further to say that its undemocratic to charge for news. I don’t find those arguments compelling enough.

Substack CEO :

In the US, these dangers have never been more present than in this era of “free” journalism. And yet the perception that subscriptions are a problem persists. It needs to stop. To believe that subscription media is anti-democratic is to believe that almost all printed media, from The Economist to the New York Times, were anti-democratic until they started to give away their journalism online in the 1990s. The Pentagon Papers; Watergate; My Lai—these stories were not originally reported for readers who got their newspapers and magazines for free. One must either disregard these stories (and many more) or dismiss the notion that subscription media is harmful to democracy.

I am yet to see any concrete evidence on how we are any more informed than we were back when news wasn’t free. If anything, we now have made it so that journalists are incentivized to push out stories as fast as possible knowing very well that they can easily be edited later. Lot of negative externalities stem from that at societal level. Moreover, at an individual level, readers can hold publications accountable if they pay for what they consume. Sure, conferences, commerce, philanthropy, and crowdfunding can and will complement ads based business model but at what point do we collectively say that perhaps free news should be rethought?