Do We Expect Too Much for Free?

When the New York Times began its new subscription service, and limited the number of articles a subscriber could access each day, the comments on the stories went crazy. Okay, crazier than comments usually are.

“And so, the countdown clock to the demise of the New York Times begins ticking in earnest…”

“The NYT is definitely shooting itself in the foot.”

“The “interweb” was meant for free transfer of info….just because big Corp’s trying to suck the big egg dry, doesn’t make it right.”

“No one’s going to do this. They’ll just read a different newspaper and the Times will die (again, like last time they tried this)”

I know, it’s shocking. A newspaper, of which precious few remain, wants to make enough money to continue to deliver world-famous reporting. What was it thinking?

But the outrage was just another example of how accustomed we’ve become to our favorite price tag: Free.

The Obsession with “Free.”
The Internet, no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise, is not free. At least, not free of charge. And yet, we expect our favorite sites do deliver quality content, and sometimes their products, for free.

We expect free shipping, free returns, free of taxes. And oh, we expect it to be cheaper than in a retail store because, after all, Internet stores have no physical storefront to maintain and manage. No overheads for that should translate into cheaper prices, right?

Is the obsession with free a condition of the Entitled Generation? Have we come so far in the new millennium that just because some things are available for free, that all things should be available for free? Don’t misunderstand me, I jumped into Napster with both feet, but now I have an iTunes account because, frankly, if I like the artist, I want them to get paid.

For the New York Times, the quality of news reporting will remain internationally respected if the gray lady can pay to attract the best talent. That costs money, and the money has to come from somewhere.

Corporations Have a Responsibility, Too
Flip the coin, and consider that if corporations expect us to be honest citizens (and pay for consuming their services), then there should be some reciprocity in how honest they are with pricing. We all know of services that add on charges until the final price looks nothing like the price you started with.

Ticketmaster, for example, which recently boosted the price of a pair of concert tickets I bought by 20 percent, when they added a convenience fee and printing charges. Forget the fact that the box office at the venue, which is a ten minute drive from my house, told me that the only way to buy tickets was through Ticketmaster, most people seem to be puzzled as to where all the fees go, especially since none of those charges seem to go to the artist putting on the show.

Similarly, try taking two suitcases to any airport. You’re looking at $25-$35 per checked bag in additional charges. Each way. Payment is due when you check the bags, or for some airlines up to 24 hours before your scheduled departure time. Ignoring the inconvenience that this additional after-the-fact charge causes travelers, if you know you’ll be checking a bag, doesn’t it make more sense to be able to have that included in the cost of the ticket?

But, to be fair, in the decade since 9/11, the average cost of an airline ticket hasn’t increased very much, even when you include the price of checking your bags.

So to ask the question again: do we expect too much for free?
I can’t help but think that the answer is “yes,” especially when the product is digital. With the exception of very few things, we expect to be able to have access to the downloadable fruits of someone else’s labor and not have to pay for it.

If you want to point at the person responsible for the economic disaster of the last few years, you’re going to need a mirror. The less we’re prepared to pay into the systems that provide us with value, the less value we’ll be able to derive from them. It’s not Nobel-level economics, it’s just about realigning ourselves with the centuries-long truths of how trade works.

On a final note, there is a growing trend for restaurants which ask their patrons to pay what they think their food was worth. It seems counter-intuitive, but these restaurants report greater profit margins than many of their fixed-price competitors. These are more than mere publicity stunts, they show a growing awareness from businesses that a lot of consumers are prepared to pay, but only when the product is worth paying for.

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