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I'm looking forward to buying my online news

There are few truisms that irritate a single woman more than the old adage about the salability of dairy cattle in a milk-saturated market. The notion that a gal ought to withhold sex from a man (or at least avoid cohabitation) in order to snag him as a husband is both offensive and outdated. Like so many offensive, outdated things we don't want to hear, however, it's also largely true.

But this is not a column about sex and the single girl; it's a column about newspapers - an industry that, like Carrie Bradshaw, has spent years trying to find love by gussying itself up, tottering out on the town and, wherever possible, giving it away for free. But just like the misguided single girl who finally learns to command the respect of her suitors by insisting on certain old-fashioned rules of courtship - e.g. accepting dinner invitations but not booty calls - so the newspaper industry is coming to the slow realization that no one else will value you if you don't value yourself.

This week, The New York Times confirmed that it is reinstating a pay wall around its website. The new metred system will reportedly allow users to view only a handful of stories before locking down and asking them to subscribe. This model, currently employed by the Financial Times in the U.K., will allow the New York Times to maintain its enormous reach (a major attraction for online advertisers) while charging "heavy" subscribers - i.e., those who like to read the whole paper every day as opposed to just dipping into it once in a while. In a funny way, it's a system that mimics the oldest print-media pay model around: the newsstand. At old-fashioned newsstands, you're welcome to pluck a magazine or newspaper from the shelf and read the headlines or, if the vendor is patient, maybe even skim an article or two. But read on and you'll be expected to pony up or push off.

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Looked at from that vantage point, the new Times pay model seems to make sense. But a big question remains: Namely, will readers be willing to go back to buying what they're now quite used to getting for free?

As someone who reads several newspapers online every day - though not always thoroughly and in no particular order - I am pleased at the Times' decision to reinstate the pay wall. For once, I find myself agreeing heartily with Wall Street Journal and London Times proprietor Rupert Murdoch, who has spent a lot of time banging on in public lately about the need for (and inevitability of) an online pay model when it comes to print media.

I find all of this heartening not just because it suggests that there might be a viable business model for newspapers in the future - and, by extension, a modicum of job security for columnists like me - but also because I think that the return of the pay model will make newspapers more enjoyable to read.

Call me crazy, but I actually miss paying for my print media. It's not about the content so much as the value we place on it. Am I prepared to buy a cow if there's free milk being delivered to my house 24/7? Absolutely not. But if the free supply dried up and I was forced to buy a cow and keep her in my backyard and milk her myself, would the fruits of my labour taste better for it? Absolutely.

Case in point: swag. For many years, I worked in the fashion media, an industry kept afloat on a sticky sea of complimentary champagne and freebies. Everywhere you looked offered some sort of swag, from designer goods for celebrities and VIPs to cocktail-party gift bags so laden with tat we'd "forget" them in taxis on purpose. I once knew a magazine editor who, upon receiving a big promotion, was sent a dress in her exact size and measurements from several major design houses. If a member of her staff was sent a nice handbag, she would order her to ring up the PR rep and have a duplicate send round to her. While nothing like this ever happened to me, I did end up with my fair share of complimentary junk. Believe me when I tell you that it was virtually impossible not to.

Funnily enough, though, my years on the fashion beat left me with an aversion to free stuff rather than an appreciation for it. After a decade of squeezing sample goo out of plastic packets, it was a strange relief to buy my own shampoo again. The experience of taking the time to choose and purchase my own perfume (instead of spritzing on whatever fragrance had come up from the mailroom that morning) gave me a renewed appreciation for the product itself.

So too, I predict, will newspapers be all the more alluring if I have to turn over a small portion of my hard-earned cash to read them.

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Of course, the solution to the print-media crisis will not be so simple. According to Megan Boler, a digital-media expert and associate chair of theory and policy studies at the University of Toronto, "the devaluing of print media in recent years has occurred not just because it's free but because of its proliferation and availability in so many different forms."

I appreciate her point. But just as the goody bag laden with gunk seems less appealing than the bottle of shampoo I purchased myself, I will savour - rather than resent - my paid-for online subscription to the New York Times.

Good riddance, in other words, to the era of free milk and information swag. I've got my credit card out and I'm ready to buy a cow.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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