Pay for it. That’s how people live.

A man walks up to a couple exiting a movie theater. “What happened in the movie?” he asks. These poor people, being of uncommon patience and immune to weirdness, spend the next 20 minutes explaining the entire plot of the movie and answering his every question. “Thanks!” the man says. “I don’t believe in paying for movies.”

The man goes to a gas station and requests a gas can. The clerk gives it to him, and he goes to the gas pump, fills it up, and simply walks away. When the clerk calls after him, he shouts, “I won’t pay for gas.”

The man follows a patron throughout a bookstore, and waits until she has purchased a magazine. After she exits the store, he grabs it from her, and sits down to read the entire thing. When he has read every article, he hands back to her. “I won’t pay for magazines.“

Are you noticing a trend here? In any of these cases, the man is betraying a nearly pathological form of entitlement, bordering on theft. Most of us would consider this kind of behavior inappropriate at best, and bizarre by our societal standards. In some cases it would result in police interdiction, or perhaps a good psychologist.

Now consider this.

A newspaper publishes a story, and posts the link on the Internet. In the Facebook comment thread, a man asks what happened, and the editor, being of uncommon patience as well, explains in a short paragraph what they know so far and what they’re still trying to find out, and asked if he has any further questions or information that they might want to look into. He signs it with his name and title as executive editor.

The man replies, “Thanks. I won’t pay for the newspaper.”

I almost admire this staggering level of hubris, a self-important myopia that would embolden someone who clearly wanted to know what happened in a news story to thank the editor for giving it away for free and reiterate his intention never to pay for a product he clearly wants. And it happens every. damn. day.

It is sometimes a Herculean effort for me not to respond to these people. Sometimes I cannot help myself, and I give them my version of Harlan Ellison’s “Pay the Writer” rant. If you have not seen it, you absolutely must. It’s an excerpt from a feature-length documentary about Ellison titled “Dreams with Sharp Teeth.” It is one of my favorite documentaries about writing, as it never fails to inspire and doesn’t shy away from Harlan’s more… acerbic tendencies. That’s me being polite.

In another segment of the documentary, Harlan gets on his rant in a different way. He is striding up and down the stage, where one can see his fellow writer and friend Peter David sitting behind him on the stage and possibly doing his taxes on his phone. Peter was used to Harlan.

Harlan is shouting, “You people think that just because you want something you’re entitled to fucking have it! No, folks, it’s called paying for it! That’s how people live! You want your music? Buy your music!”

I hear Harlan‘s voice every time I see one of these asshats in the comments section of a newspaper — my own former employer is a frequent victim, but I see it on the pages of almost every news organization that dares to charge for its content — and these unmitigated cretins insist that they are entitled to receive the product without paying for it.

It doesn’t matter what the story is about. I have seen them respond to the tragic death of a child by stating, “Why do you post on Facebook if I have to PAY for the story?” or “Sorry, I refuse to pay for your newspaper.”

So they’re hanging around the newspaper’s Facebook page commenting every single day because….?

Most egregious of these freeloaders are the people who try to fix their cookies and caches so they can reuse their five free articles per month, or copy-paste the entire text of the story into the comments for the rest of the freeloaders.

This is called theft. Just because it’s words doesn’t make it FREE.

Fortunately, if the social media team is on task, they can stomp on that pretty quickly. I make it my personal mission to report this crap every time I see it. But even when they’re not outright stealing, there is rarely a story from my former employer in which someone is not complaining in the comments about having to pay for the news.

Sometimes, I just have to channel my inner Harlan, and I tell them, “Do you go to a gas station and expect them to give you free gas? Do you go to the movie theater and demand that they allow you in for nothing? Then what gives you the right to demand that this product, which is so important to this community and costs an enormous amount to create, should be given to you for absolutely nothing from a newspaper that is struggling anyway?“

The fact is, newspapers are struggling. Newspapers always struggle in times of economic trials, because their primary form of support has always been advertising and thus is a direct reflection of the health of a consumer-based economy.

As I’ve often tried to explain to people, newspapers are the canaries in the coal mines. We saw it in the mid-2000s leading up to the crash of 2008–09. As businesses began to fail, the first thing they cut was newspaper advertising. When Circuit City went under, every newspaper in the country lost a highly lucrative Sunday circular. Ditto Sports Authority, or Radio Shack, or Toys R Us, or the various grocery chains that have died. Locally, the supermarket chain Schnucks bought out the parent company of Shop n Save, so in my area, two weekly circulars became one. Not so great for the newspaper industry.

Nationally, you have to look at all the major retailers that have closed just this year, thanks to our good friend the coronavirus. Art Van Furniture, Pier 1, Sur La Table and others have announced closures of all stores, with or without sales to another company — likely including Brooks Brothers, which has been in business since 1818. Many others like JCPenney, Bed Bath & Beyond, GNC, Kmart, Sears, Bath and Body Works, CVS, Gamestop, Bose, Macy’s, Office Max.Depot.Whatever and many others have closed some stores and scaled back, sometimes under bankruptcy protection.

All of these were newspaper advertising customers. And I’m not even going into how first Craigslist, then the Facebook buy-sell groups, have completely killed the classified income. When was the last time you looked at the classifieds in a newspaper?

A lot of people in my industry believe that our big mistake was initially giving away the news for free online. I suppose that makes a certain sort of sense, if you look at it sideways. People got used to reading the news for free, and then we started charging for it. But here’s the thing, folks: in my oh-so-humble opinion, it wouldn’t have made a jot of difference.

Look what happened in music. People used to buy albums, then tapes, then CDs, and yes I still have tapes in the basement because I’m old. I was particularly fond of buying singles, because I have weird music taste and I usually like just a couple of songs from each artist, rarely an entire album. So when iTunes was invented, it was the best thing ever for me! I could just buy a single song.

But look what happened. Napster, and its brethren. The first thing people saw when music went online was, how can I get this for free? It took a while for both technology and the law to catch up, but eventually the overall status quo is, if you want your music, buy your music, whether that’s buying individual songs and albums or subscribing to one of the streaming services. Harlan would approve. But still they try to steal.

The same thing happened with books. The e-book was invented, and immediately people began to passing them around like a pack of gum at recess. To this day, the illegal sharing of e-books costs publishers an estimated $300 million per year, which may or may not include piracy of self-published work. The Authors Guild and the U.S. Senate have tried to get into it, with little luck.

And yet, despite repeated court rulings that intellectual property must be compensated and cannot be simply posted online for free — a partial result of Harlan Ellison vs. AOL, which nearly bankrupted him — we see something like the Internet Archive Library. You’ll remember, these people decided that their best way to endure the pandemic was to take books currently under copyright and throw them on the Internet for free. While their name said “library,” libraries pay for their books. They buy a license to share those books for a limited period of time with a certain number of borrowers.

Bottom line: the publisher and author get paid. That’s how people live. This is an era where the the median author income has dropped 42 percent in the last decade, and these people are complaining about 99c per ebook.

I thought that was fairly obvious, and yet the authors who joined with the Authors Guild in fighting the Internet Archive Library garnered the fury of the internet, driving at least one author who fought this battle to basically abandon Twitter after vicious attacks and doxxing of his family. Even now it makes me nervous to write this, knowing that someone is going to flip their lid about it. How dare we ask to be paid for our writing?

How does this connect to the entitled jerks in the newspaper comments? Observing what happened with music and books (and to a lesser degree movies), tells me that if we had begun charging for news on the very first day that we all went online, people would still insist it should be free. Perhaps they wouldn’t feel so free to abuse the people who create the news online — a former colleague of mine lamented that she would just love to start a single day without opening her email and being called a dumb bitch. But that’s a pipe dream, and a different rant.

Sadly, current events tell me that this attitude is getting even worse, and spreading to other industries. People seem to believe if it’s on the Internet, it must be free, no matter what it took to create it. It isn’t just the news anymore, or entertainment items like books, movies or music.

How many times in the pandemic debates have we seen people rant that if a college course is shifted to online, students should have to pay less tuition? How many people have expounded that if classes in the K-12 public schools move to distance learning, they should all get their property taxes back?

It astounds me, as one who both pays tuition as a graduate student and is compensated for teaching as a teaching assistant. Do they seriously think it’s not going to cost anything to put my English class on the Internet? It’s going to cost an enormous amount in technological infrastructure, not including my own personal investment in my home computer system.

And, there is the not-inconsiderable fact that they pay me. Do they think all the professors and instructors suddenly aren’t working because we’re doing it from our home offices? Do they have any idea how much more work it is to chase after students and be able to provide all of the educational and support services we need to when our connections are entirely online?

And that’s nothing compared to what the public schools must do, in terms of ensuring technological access for families who may not have enough money to eat, much less buy a Chromebook and a hotspot for every child, and perhaps hire more teachers to educate students simultaneously in the classroom and at home for hybrid districts. I know one small-town district that has purchased 1,000 laptops for the kids who don’t have one at home, and that’s just for openers.

This attitude of “give it to us free” is perhaps born of the ignorance into what goes into providing a form of media, whether that is a book, a song, a film, a newspaper article, or any other form. People are often astounded when I tell them that e-books cost just about as much to produce as a paper book. You still have an author, publisher, editor, layout artist, cover artist, line editor, etc. that has to be paid. You still need to purchase the art, and fund the marketing, website hosting etc.

The only thing you save is paper, and while that’s not an inconsiderable cost and the reason why most paper books still cost more than e-books, it’s not as much of a difference as you might think.

The same thing goes for news. Even in an era where the cost of newsprint is soaring every year — I’m not making that up — the cost of producing the news is essentially the same whether it’s online or off. The technological infrastructure required to maintain a news website is massive, and requires a lot of people to manage their social media, especially since news organizations are frequently the target of hackers and they have to patrol the comment section constantly for spam, abusive assholes, raging racists and the occasional Nazi. You still have to pay the reporters, editors, photographers, designers. In the end, just like with books, the only thing you’re saving is paper.

The bottom line is that we have developed a dangerously entitled mindset to believe that everything on the Internet is free. Nothing on the Internet is free. If you want your news, buy your news. Because let me tell you, they’re in serious danger of losing those local newspapers that they claim to hate so much, with enormous consequences for the country.

Case in point: The McClatchy chain, the second largest newspaper chain in the country, is being bought out by a hedge fund. Now, maybe they’ll be the world’s first benevolent hedge fund and leave the journalists alone so they can keep doing good journalism that exposes powerful people doing bad things. Or they’re going to chop it apart, wring every dime from its properties that they possibly can, shred every newspaper down to its components and then flee with their profits intact. It’s happened before.

Who knows? Once upon a time I thought the worst thing that ever happened to a newspaper was Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. And no one was more surprised than me when the billionaire bought the newspaper and left it alone. They continue to do fine journalism there, including investigating and criticizing Amazon. But not every newspaper can have a Charles Foster Kane swoop out of nowhere and buy them to save them.

So that leaves us with the local readers, the people who choose not to subscribe to a newspaper even as they clamor for its news and complain when they can’t get it. The people who stomp their feet and insist on the freebies are often the same people complaining that there’s too much entitlement these days and people shouldn’t be looking for handouts. Irony is dead.

I don’t have a solution, other than calling on all of us to be good stewards and patrons of this extremely important work. No one can possibly subscribe to everything — not even me, and I have a spreadsheet to keep track of all my news and magazine subscriptions.

But there are options for those feeling the pinch in these difficult times. There is Apple News, which aggregates hundreds of newspapers and magazines for $10 a month, and I’m sure there are competitor services if you’re anti-Apple. There are student rates for starving college students at most news publications and they’re always running sales, like my local metro at five months for $5. The Washington Post is currently $29 a year at full price, but if that’s a stretch for your budget, know that your local library probably has a free subscription accessible online to the New York Times or aggregators like News Bank. I have yet to find a single local library that doesn’t have multiple options for online access to news articles without fees. You’re already paying for it through your taxes, and the libraries pay the services which pay the newspapers, and lo the 5,000 were fed.

Pay for your news. That’s how people live. And you won’t like the country you’ll get if those newspapers disappear.

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at patreon.com/edonald.

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