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Opinion | Whatever Happened to ‘Free’ News?

Then Donald Trump won the presidential election, and I felt that maybe in that moment there was work to do elsewhere. Maybe HuffPost, with its huge home-page audience, could be a vessel for testing this question that had been nagging at me: How can you make a quality news product for people who were never going to pay for news? What would it mean to create a news organization that saw itself not as writing about people who feel left out of the political, economic and social power arrangements, but for them? I took the job.

With its clever, large-format headlines and populist sensibility, HuffPost had the feel of a left-of-center tabloid, like The New York Daily News in its heyday. We would make news for everyone on the internet, for free. Corporate America, via digital advertising, would foot the bill. If this all sounds overly optimistic, if not downright naïve, well, it was. But what else could one do in those desperate postelection days but fuse dreams and work and hope for the best?

In a way, this plan represented a very old model of paying for quality journalism, one that began in 1833, when a young businessman named Benjamin Day had an idea. As Tim Wu wrote in his book “The Attention Merchants,” most of New York City’s newspapers at that time were priced at 6 cents — the equivalent of more than $2 today — a luxury good aimed at a tiny, wealthy audience. Day realized that he could make more money if he charged readers just a penny for his newspaper, and then sold their eyeballs to businesses who wanted to sell them stuff. His newspaper, The New York Sun, set the template for the news business in the United States for most of the next two centuries, even as new technologies such as radio and television transformed how news was distributed.

Capturing mass attention required access to expensive means of distribution: either a press and delivery trucks for print, or access to the public airwaves — which were licensed by the government — for broadcast. These costs allowed the news organizations that could afford them to corner the market on mass audiences, whose attention they then sold to advertisers. The handsome profits they reaped enabled investments in high-quality journalism, including high-risk and expensive endeavors such as investigative reporting and international coverage.

We all know what happened next. The internet, which initially promised to propel this old model even further by reducing distribution costs to near zero and creating the tools to sell ever more sophisticated kinds of advertising, instead created an economic crisis for journalism. Newspapers still had to produce their expensive print products even as the advertisements that paid for them gave way to much cheaper and more highly targeted digital ones. Paid classified advertising evaporated. Local news cratered, and even titans like The New York Times faced existential threats.

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