Can Papers End the Free Ride Online?, from the NY Times

… nearly a decade after newspapers began building and showcasing their Web sites, one of the most vexing questions in newspaper economics endures: should publishers charge for Web news, knowing that they may drive readers away and into the arms of the competition?

Executives at The Times have suggested that the paper, which already charges for its crossword puzzle, news alerts and archives online, may start charging for other portions of its content…

Back in 1995 or so, when I was still living in Boston, and first came online, I remember thinking that they had some content that I would be willing to pay for: restaurant and car reviews (not that I had a car in Boston), the events calendar, things like that. In no time at all though everyone just got used to the fact that we didn’t have to pay for these things online, that content that in print would probably require a subscription (or at least would require you to find a copy of the Phoenix), was free online. And so it began.

Now I wonder, if & sites like it had figured out sooner that they could charge for this content, where would we be now?

What if newspapers had always charged for access online? Would P2P file-sharing be as big an issue today? Maybe it’s a big leap from to Kazaa, but here’s what I’m thinking: if web users had been trained early on that content online cost, then would users today be as willing to, for example, illegally swap music files?

You could, I suppose, take the altruistic view that & other early content providers subscribed to the “information wants to be free” ethic, and so chose not to charge. But I don’t think so, actually. I think they suffered from a lack of imagination: most other websites at that time were free, so no one had a clue how to charge for online content. There just weren’t many business models for that back then. And newspapers have regretted it ever since. And now they’re trying to dial it back.

So my question is this, and it’s unfortunately unanswerable: Did online content providers screw themselves? If they had been on the ball from the beginning could they have trained web users to pay for content? Or would the “information wants to be free” meme have won out in the end anyway? This is unanswerable since that social experiment has been run & it can’t be un-run. But are there other economic arenas where this could be put to the test?