The service had been around for decades when, in 1987, AT&T allowed businesses leasing 900 numbers to charge for calls. People started to pay—for sports scores, news, weather, and stock quotes. Men also paid, sometimes quite a lot, to listen to women talk dirty. The change in dialing habits revolutionized the idea of the phone call. The telephone was no longer merely a device that allowed for remote conversation at minimal cost. It became a vehicle for running a business—you could make money with a phone, so long as you sold what people wanted to buy.

That lesson was not lost with the coming of the Internet. Even as people fretted about whether anyone would figure out a way to make a buck online, the pornographers, ever on the vanguard, shifted technologies and began charging not merely for a voice, but for a peek. Others took notice, with higher aspirations. Even as the early apostles of Web culture extolled the virtues of every-man-a-publisher, content did, in fact, go on sale.

Some of it sold. Much didn’t—or at least not enough, in the news business, to make up for all the potential lost advertising revenue that has always been the financial backbone of the industry. Slate charged for access for about a year, only to reverse itself in 1999. The Los Angeles Times charged for CalenderLive, only to drop the fee in 2005, after twenty-one months of declining page views and modest revenue. Variety and Salon took down their paywalls, as did many of the handful of small newspapers that had charged—among them the Creston (Iowa) News Advertiser, the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, and the Aiken (South Carolina) Standard, whose page views tripled after its wall came down in 2007. The New York Times ended TimesSelect in 2007, having calculated—at that time—that it could more than make up for the $10 million in lost revenue with the advertising generated by all the many new visitors to its site.

Still, there were holdouts, and the titan among the paid-content stalwarts was and remains The Wall Street Journal, which continues to charge subscribers $100 annually. While the number of subscribers has grown steadily to its present one million, they pale in comparison to the 20 million monthly unique visitors to The New York Times, which, for the moment, remains entirely free—but may not be for much longer.

The sense among the free-content advocates, though, is that the Journal, great as it is, is an outlier, a publication not written for a general audience but for the world of commerce. The same was being said of other specialized online publications that cater to people with a financial stake in the news they provided. The growing online presence of the trade press, in the view of the believers in free content, meant only that people already conditioned to spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for the brand of news that served their particular needs were now logging on, and not waiting for the newsletter to arrive.

Besides, walled-off content meant content that was not searchable, which meant that it did not draw the great flows of online traffic in a world where the hyperlink had become the coin of commerce and notice.

Sites like CQ.com—which boasted a multitude of databases, brought in about 43 percent of CQ’s annual revenue (somewhere between $50 million and $100 million; the company is privately held and will be no more precise about earnings), and had a large editorial staff (CQ Inc. employs more than 165 people)—while admired for the work they produced, were nonetheless relegated to the fringe because they were not part of the greater, link-driven conversation. And hadn’t CQ subsequently started a free site, CQ Politics, which, while it generated less than 2 percent of the company’s revenue, did attract an average of 450,000 uniques a month, ensuring that CQ was not left out of Washington’s overheated political conversation?

Michael Shapiro is a contributing editor to CJR and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.