With traditional print media, i.e. newspapers and magazines, being distressed by the ever-increasing challenge of generating revenue online, “pay walls” have become a hotly discussed panacea for both halting the demise of offline formats, and for making their virtual outlets profitable (or, at least, sustainable). In any case, a lot has been contributed to the economic, ethical and technical pros and cons of the various fee- or subscription-based models, also in light of “Open Access” in research. Yet, the dramatic effects on open source intelligence collection planning by namely high-quality news journalism and its in-depth analysis of current events becoming ‘less easily (or freely) available’ have so far been hardly scrutinized.
According to a recent study, “more than 360 U.S. papers will charge for digital content by the end of the year”. Assuming the Washington Post’s 2001 remark still holds true, “so much of what the CIA learns is collected from newspaper clippings that the director of the agency ought to be called the Pastemaster General”. Sometimes it seems like copying and pasting have become the number one activity of online news media, too. Nonetheless, there still is this invaluable plethora of specialized, committed and daring journalists, sources that must not be set aside. You simply cannot substitute the Neue Zürcher Zeitung with 20 Minuten.
It is important to remind everyone working with open sources that ‘open’ does not equal ‘free’. Resources (here: budgets) are limited, and so you have to make a choice as to which sources need to be exploited in order to comprehensively understand and answer a given intelligence requirement. This very selection calls for considerable knowledge of the media landscape, its actors, capabilities and interests, and it calls for a collector’s integrity to resist the temptation of ignoring sources that are not easily (or cheaply) available. Indeed, journalists have always played a crucial role in uncovering and explaining events, and in providing solid analytical context, far beyond just rehashing agency reports. Maybe it is not fair to say that free journalism is all too often worth what you are paying for it. But still the pressing question for readers and intelligence alike is not whether we can afford high-quality journalism. It is whether we can afford not to have it.