Information Access in the Balance

There were two items that came out today that I just felt compelled to write about. The first is about the New York Times and the second is about the database service company EBSCO.

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It was announced today that the New York Times will be moving to a system in 2011 in which users will be allowed a certain number of free articles per month before having to pay for further access. In its present form, people would be allowed to view 10 articles per month before incurring a $3.59 charge per week. There are many unknowns in the business plan, but as can be expected, there are some aspects that should concern librarians as this is a potential barrier to information access.

First and foremost, as most libraries are subscribers to the print edition of the New York Times (a noted exception to the article limit), does that give us one unlimited access license? Will there be an institutional licenses or accounts? I am hoping there is consideration taken for school and academic libraries as their students turn to the Times for accurate and timely stories for their research and projects. 

Second, this creates a small but distinct financial barrier of access for the  working poor and others living below the poverty line. Unless there is some kind of institutional access available, I fear that these people will be prevented from accessing additional articles. While the current fee is relatively small, for those on a tight budget could quickly add up and be better spent on gas, bus fare, and other necessities. As the economy evolves into one based on a person’s knowledge, I am concerned that this could lock out or inhibit those who cannot afford it if it is based on individual accounts.

Third, I’m curious as to the timeline under which an new article will move from a recent story to an archived one. I’m also curious as to whether this archived content will be counted as an ‘article access’ against the monthly quota as well as whether or not this content will be embargoed from various databases. I would hope that there would be a finely balanced timeline under which an article could move from being behind a paywall and into the general archives.

Fourth and last, I’m wondering what this will do to the “link economy”. Content sharing drives people to websites through PLNs and other discovery network tools. While the NYT is not moving to the extremes of the AP, I fear it will put a damper on linking to some of the good journalism and content at the Times. I’m not certain what the impact will be, but I have a hunch that it will result in people finding other links to stories or simply look for a pirated versions of the story on the internet. Since e-books have started to be traded by pirates, I can’t imagine stories behind paywalls would be terribly far behind either. It creates its own disruption for those who use NYT articles for their blogs, research, and other in-depth studies as not everyone who wishes to see the cited articles will have access to them.

On Twitter today, I called this move the “Jay Leno of newspaper moves”. While I recognize the need to provide revenue so that the reporting can continue, I don’t think it will yield the profit margins they are hoping to gain. Furthermore, I think this creates potential customer service headaches as people take issue with article accesses that are not the ones they are looking for, potential inaccuracies in their indexing, and basic disputes as to what constitutes an access. Make no mistake that the journalism industry needs to figure out a business model to remain viable while providing the best possible access to information. This is the first of many movements that will be coming out of a business that has failed to innovate over the last 15 years since the dawn of the internet. The ripple effect remains to be seen, but this is one change of many to come.

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During the ALA Midwinter Meeting, EBSCO announced that they have become the exclusive full text content providers for a myriad of popular magazines. Simply put, if you do not have a subscription to EBSCO databases, you will not have database access to current or previous articles. While most of the magazines carry content for free on their websites, there is no guarantee that this practice will continue in the future. This kind of content monopoly is rather disturbing as a threat to information access (especially in school libraries with shrinking budgets). There’s an excellent post on the GALE blog about EBSCO’s previous exclusive agreement to carry content. They really hit some of the feelings I have on this news and I could not have said some of the concerns any better. Exclusive agreements do not help the previously diverse marketplace nor the library customer nor the end user.

At the moment, I’m fairly uncertain what can actually be done about this. With content residing on the sites of the magazines, does it arise to a monopoly? What are the recourses one can take? Do libraries have viable alternatives? If libraries are the facilitators of information access, are we simply relegated to buying it without challenging the circumstances under which it is given?

If there was any time to act upon either one of these issues, the time would be now. (NYT contacts, Letter to the Publisher or President) (EBSCO contacts)