The Case for Free

Pictured above: Yahoo!’s early search page.

We think often here at The Beacon about the early days of the internet, when many of our staffers learned about this new, amazing method of connecting computers and sharing information throughout the world.

We remember huddling around desktop computers, listening to the whirring and chirping of dial-up modems as we waited for Yahoo’s search page to load for the first time. 

After waiting for what today would seem a ridiculously unreasonable amount of time, a search window would appear, and you could type in a query and then wait another unreasonable amount of time to see what the search engine had scraped from the World Wide Web.

The whole wide world was suddenly open to us, at a time when all we’d had before to help with research were our local library’s vertical file and reference books that were out of date by the time they were read.

Obviously, this dates us. We’ve been around long enough to remember the days before .com turned the internet into a giant store, where everything from your taste in breakfast cereals to your latest Amazon purchase is fair game for the free market.

But the free market isn’t what the early internet was about. It was about the free exchange of information and ideas. It was exhilarating. It was the wild west. And it was something that was bound to be tamed and exploited for capital gain.

A generation later, the internet has upended all kinds of businesses that had seemed like they would last forever. It hit media the hardest and the soonest — from print media to the record industry to Hollywood — no media business that we took for granted in the mid-1990s looks at all like it did in those days. And the internet has moved on, now poised to disrupt everything from retail to hotels and transportation.

When we launched The Beacon’s website in June of 2013, we made a commitment to not ever put our web content behind a paywall. It was a commitment we made wholeheartedly, and, even as other local media outlets are now implementing paywalls on their websites, we stand by this early commitment.

The internet, at its best, has always been a great equalizer, allowing people, with a minimal investment, the opportunity to learn how to build and repair the world around them, to connect with their neighbors or to learn all they can about subjects ranging from car repair to farming to political organizing and building community non-profits. 

This is the ethos in which we were raised, and it is one that we believe is worth fighting for. 

If only the people with the resources and interest to put their credit card on file have access to news on the internet, our democracy will suffer. 

There will always be an audience for free information. If the highest quality information is only available to the people who have the most disposable income, we will be left with a less informed electorate that is fed exclusively by the clickbait that shows up in their Facebook news feeds. 

We’re building enough walls in this country right now. A paywall shouldn’t be one of them.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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