Of course there are still very confused ideas about content. Many people still think they can get away with appearances, useless decorations, etcetera. But even if we boil it down to real, meaningful content the issue remains blurred.
The role of a company or an organization, unless its in the publishing business, is not to be a content provider. Its only to provide clear, well-organized content that relates to what its doing. Thats so obvious that it should be unnecessary to repeat it but its surprising to find how many companies still think that they cant be online unless they provide entertainment or other content unrelated to their identity and mission.
For all companies that are not in the business of producing information the issue of free internet versus charging for service doesnt exist. They provide information as they feel appropriate to promote and explain what they do. They charge money for whatever they are selling. The more good free internet exists, the better the environment for them to perform their role.
If we limit the issue to those organizations that want to make money by selling information, we get to the real heart of the problem. There is enormous amount of free information on the net end it will continue to be there. A lot of it is trash, but some is very good. As in the case of universities putting all of their knowledge online.
So the situation is quite difficult for anyone trying to sell information as such on the net. Except, of course, for highly specialized professional services which are already charging for their content.
I cant thing of any magic formula for the solution of this problem. But there are two possibilities.
One is that so-called information services, that went online with the sole purpose of providing no matter what information and make some easy money, simply give up and shut down. Leaving the field open for those who can provide real quality.
The net needs great variety and diversity. So I am not suggesting that it would be a good idea for thousands of good services to disappear and only a few major concentrations to survive. Quite to the contrary, we want as much diversity as we can get. Many small and dedicated organizations will continue to provide better quality, and more interesting content, that any of the big generic systems. Many of those can survive without charging for information as they have done so far (their reward is not money but the exchange of knowledge). Others can, and probably will, find some financial support by people and organizations that are specifically interested in what they are doing.
The second possibility is that information providers set more realistic objectives. If they dont expect too much, too soon they will find ways of making their operations viable.
Is advertising one of the solutions? It can be. But it wont work until the environment becomes less confused. It takes time to build a clear identity, with loyal readership and believability. Warping content to please sponsors (as too many are doing, in their hasty attempt to achieve impossible financial targets) leads to a loss of quality that soon becomes visible and disappoints readers. For instance several search engines have been dramatically deteriorating by grading materials on the basis of who pays for higher ranking.
What we need is more clarity, more honesty, greater attention to genuine service to readers. And (also in this case) a much better understanding of how the net works. The real problem is that many things need to be undone before good quality can be properly recognized and rewarded.