EDITOR'S NOTE: Imagine, dear reader, you are in the future -- say, 2012 -- and living in a world where news is no longer free ...
I saw my old friend Michael Wolff, founder of the news-aggregation site Newser, in prison last week. I'm ashamed to say that I put off visiting him because I feared that he wouldn't be doing too good -- that he'd be, you know, ill-informed, and that he'd try to pump me for news from the outside world that, legally, I couldn't tell him. Sure, he looked a little older (he's lost all his hair -- the remaining half-dozen strands), but ironically, the first high-profile convictee of the 2011 anti-aggregation law -- aka "The Information No Longer Wants to Be Free" law -- actually seemed to be on top of all the news of the day. Way more so than a lot of people on the outside.
"I've got access to some pharmaceutical-grade news in here," he told me with delight, his grin beaming through the smeared Plexiglas divider separating us. (I asked him if he was OK with my quoting him, and, ever the troublemaker, he said, "Sure, what the hell? Be my guest!") Let's just say that it turns out a certain criminal element in prison traffics in black-market brand-name news and information, and Michael, who has always known how to work a room, even one with windowless concrete walls, has befriended the right people behind bars.
To be honest, I didn't see any of this coming back in late 2009, when newspapers all started putting their online content behind pay walls and jacking up print-subscription rates to compensate for cratering advertising revenues. And even though 2009 was also the year that the FCC got all schoolmarmish about the web -- issuing, for starters, strict new rules prohibiting bloggers from writing favorably about swag without full disclosure -- I guess I didn't realize how quickly things would snowball from there.
But prison? For my old friend Michael? Really? Yes, he did violate the law by buying online newspaper subscriptions for his staff, and then having Newser continue to do what it's always done (pay staffers to read the news so you don't have to, then summarize and quote from it briskly). He acts like he knew all along that imprisonment was inevitable, but I'm not so sure. After all, other big players in the aggregation game have successfully avoided prosecution by adjusting to the new law. Like The Huffington Post, which has since, of course, largely turned into an Arianna Huffington fan-fiction site -- and has better traffic than ever. Or Gawker, which stopped quoting from and referencing the mainstream media, and instead thrives largely on its wheelhouse free content: the Byzantine, self-referential morass of commenters' comments about other commenters' comments. Meanwhile, how pathetic that Google got out of the aggregation game with barely a fight or a whimper. But I suppose with its latest goldmine, ads sold against real-time search results of news-free Twitter tweets (90% of which are about what's on TV right now -- "news" for which the FCC thankfully granted a waiver), the closure of Google News had no real material impact on its bottom line.
I honestly think that Michael is in prison to serve as an example -- as a warning to others who would disseminate news freely in the new era of pay walls and "luxury" newspaper subscriptions. At the same time, I don't think the FCC and the politicians who backed such draconian legislation starting in 2010 really thought through the personal and societal ramifications of their crusade.
For one thing, the fact that the Russian mob has switched to trafficking in pay-wall passwords because it's often more lucrative than counterfeit handbags -- surreal, isn't it? And let's face it: The cultural divide between the news-haves and the news-have-nots is just depressing. I'm relieved that I still have enough income to be able to afford the now $7,000-per-year New York Times (yes, I'm one of the remaining 30,000 or so subscribers to the nearly ad-free paper and its highly exclusive website) as well as a few other legitimate news titles. But it feels both Orwellian and un-American that I had to sign an ironclad nondisclosure agreement in the form of the much-reviled "Premium Content Code of Honor" that all paid-news consumers now have to agree to. And with TV news -- no longer legally able to piggyback on the hard work done by newspaper journalists -- having devolved so dramatically, the "free" news that's out there is almost worthless. I mean, geez, CNN with its three recent days of wall-to-wall coverage of those adorable quintuplets who fell asleep at the controls of their runaway balloon, only to crash land, improbably, in a well, where they were trapped for four additional days? Enough already!
And don't even get me started on The Glenn Beck Channel (formerly Fox News). If one more poor person comes up to me and says, "Do you accept Glenn Beck as your personal savior?" I'm going to lose it. Of course, I'm legally bound to not reveal what I know, as a Premium Content Code of Honor signatory, about Mr. Beck's status, or lack thereof, as the messiah -- or, for that matter, President Obama's status, or lack thereof, as the antichrist. (If you're one of the lucky few who can afford the facts, well, good for you. And hey, e-mail me; let's hang out some time!)
I mean, I guess we should be happy that newspapers are doing so great -- that pay walls, against everybody's expectations, actually work and that revenues at ... oh, wait, I'm pretty sure what I almost told you I might have read in The New York Times business section.
So never mind. I've said too much already.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco