Andrew Sullivan’s Paywall and the End of Free Knowledge

The Internet once offered open access to a wide range of great information. Will it all disappear behind a paywall?

When I was a young man growing up in central Kansas, shortly before the dawn of the Internet, our town saw the New York Times once a week. The Sunday issue was mailed to our local library, usually arriving on Tuesday or Wednesday, to give a few of us a peek at a bigger world we’d thus far failed to encounter. My high school English teacher loved to wax rhapsodic about the paid obituaries in the paper; I preferred to stare at the ads for Broadway and off-Broadway plays and wonder if I’d ever get to personally experience such a rich range of theater. It was like a keyhole view of the universe, and for those of us who cared, the glimpse was enough to nurture long-lasting dreams.

You know what happened next: Everything changed.

Before the decade ended, I was starting every day by checking out the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times online. For the first time, I had access to those news sources in something like real time—and so did millions of other people across the country.

The sudden abundance of good information, free information, in turn enabled the rise of the blogosphere—which, in its early, pre-professional days, largely consisted of smart, passionate amateurs from outside the Beltway given their first crack at informed commentary. Information was freely available to anyone who cared for it, with the result that our national dialogue became wider and more democratic. My own career was transformed both by the access to information and by the easy publishing opportunities: Let’s just say I started out expecting to spend my life reporting and editing for small-town Kansas newspapers.

But now everything is changing again.

It turned out free information might’ve been good for consumers, but not so great for the producers. The New York Times and L.A. Times have both had paywalls for a couple of years now; we hear that both Philadelphia papers will soon have paid websites. And now, this week, we’re told that Andrew Sullivan—probably the most-read political blogger in the universe—is leaving the Daily Beast for his own website, which will start charging readers $20 a year for access. (The choice was almost immediately a hit, with subscribers providing more than $100,000 in pledges within hours of Sullivan’s announcement.)

Sullivan is a talented and (thanks to his staff) insanely prolific blogger. He’s probably the best at not only delivering his own opinions, but at offering an overview of the conversations and debates that are happening throughout the blogosphere. Nobody else does what he does; he’s indispensable.

But I won’t be paying to read Andrew Sullivan at his new site.

Some of this is personal preference: Sullivan is important, but he’s also erratic and given to vendettas, and I’m not overly inclined to start sending money to a man who promoted the outlandish “Trig trutherism” conspiracy theories long past their sell-by date.

Some of this is a matter of prioritizing, though: As paywalls proliferate, I’m going to have to pick and choose which publications and authors I need and can afford. And some previously indispensable sources of information will become, well, dispensable. If I have to start paying for information again, then I have to make sure that I’m getting my bang for the buck. I have to have the NYT; I’ll definitely pay for the Philly papers—or maybe just one of them, depending on how subscription costs play out. After that? Who knows?

The first decade of the 21st century may ultimately be remembered as a near-utopia, a time when information flowed more freely than it ever had before or since, when money wasn’t a requirement to participate in the smartest debates and discussions around. I can’t help but feel a little wistful for that time—even though, as a journalist, I understand the need for journalism to actually pay for itself.

The paywalls are coming. Choices will be made. And for many of us, then, the world of information is going to get smaller again.