It's looking more and more like a lot of the news that's now free online will be behind some kind of pay wall in another year or two. But anyone hoping for a world in which all content is paid content would do well to note the cautionary tale that is Rolling Stone.
The music and pop culture magazine dropped a bombshell of a story Monday: a profile of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in which the commander of the Afghanistan campaign and his aides heap verbal abuse on the Obama Administration. The story dominated the news cycle and brought immediate fallout for McChrystal, who was summoned back to Washington to answer for it and may lose his job.
Although it was leaked to reporters, the story was not posted to Rolling Stone's website in keeping with owner Jann Wenner's belief that withholding the best magazine content forces would-be readers to buy print copies at the newsstand. Of course, what it actually does is encourage other sites to post the story in its entirety to capitalize on the interest. Even though it's a blatant violation of copyright, prosecution is unlikely as long as the offending site complies with a request to take the story down once it arrives.
Even so, it's usually only independent bloggers willing to take the risk. But in this case, two prominent news outlets, Time.com and Politico, stepped into the vacuum by hosting versions of the article until Wenner Media told them to desist. Finally, at 11 a.m. today, the story appeared on rollingstone.com.
You can't blame Rolling Stone for wanting to sell magazines, or for expecting other corporate media entities to respect its copyright. But as any critic of the war on drugs can tell you, demand that's sufficiently great will always find a supply, legal or otherwise. New Yorker editor David Remnick shares Wenner's aversion to giving away all of his expensively-produced reporting online for free, but his magazine takes a more realistic approach, posting its most newsworthy stories while holding back other, more esoteric material. Wenner should consider doing likewise. From a bottom-line standpoint, newsstand sales may be better than web traffic, but web traffic is better than nothing, which is about what Rolling Stone's current strategy is worth.
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