Essay: Why Newspaper Paywalls Are Bad for Democracy, Plus, Pretty Damn Stupid

I don’t know what the percentages are for Americans who get the main part of news online, but I suspect that it is significant and getting bigger.  I use Google News, an app that compiles headlines and ledes from multiple sources based on categories and source selections.  In fact, this particular app, along with a bunch of others, is often cited as a contributor to the “information bias” or “bubble” in which the reader tends to get news that reflects his or her leanings.  It is true, in my case, that I had de-selected various Fox news outlets for a while, until I realized I really should see just how they cover their own version of reality.

I’m sure that I still have a Google News feed that reflects plenty of bias, despite whatever efforts I make to counter such.  Although, of course, such bias was even more likely back in the old print-only days, where most of us might subscribe to only one newspaper (Boston Globe for me, for a long time), but there you go.

Ostensibly, the world of digital information should make bias easier to overcome.  One of the reasons why I like Google News is that I see reports (well, links to reports) from many different sources, and often even the list of report links, with the sources marked, the headlines provided, and at least a fragment of the lede (in effect, the tagline noting the main point or fact of the story) can offer a sort of gestalt on the subject. Well, kind of, anyway.

Increasingly, the links to the specific publications carrying the story of interest have paywalls, a fancy name that means I need to be a subscriber to the site (or in more modest cases, need to provide an email and/or turn off an ad blocker, which many sites now detect) in order to read the full article.  The New York Times and Boston Globe are examples of the teaser approach, with NYT, for instance, providing five article reads per month before cutting off further online access; this is done, obviously, to encourage subscriptions, and I appreciate it, although there are news cycles such as an approaching election when five stories are indeed going to leave a reader wanting, while other periods are quite survivable for me without any NYT.

On the other hand, access to information to attractive sources can add up to some significant costs, even if the subscription charges for any one online newspaper is reasonably inexpensive relative to print subscription. But reasonable costs quickly give way if one occasionally wants to access a few stories from one or another of the many online newspapers, when one modest subscription becomes numerous modest subscriptions, and/or an explosion in email promotion and marketing in one’s inbox, or the time and attention the cascade of on-site ads demand even for the most talented of us when it comes to ignoring such marketing distractions.

I understand the revenue requirements of newspapers, I really do, having earned a living as a journalist and having specialized in digital media for much of my publishing career.  But few talk about how newspapers have clung to old revenue models, even while surrendering key business income generation to outfits far worse positioned to succeed.  I find it hard to be sympathetic to those who cry about the state of their business when it was their own greed and/or poor thinking that is responsible.

As the digital publishing age settled in, newspapers, like music studios, print book and magazine publishers, and television and movie businesses, tended not to pursue new digital models (think iTunes, ebooks, and Netflix), even though, of course, the old media was in the best position to do so—they had their hands on the content already, after all.  Instead, old media fought a rearguard action, often based on efforts to make the digital

Here’s a copyright violation, since I’ve just copied this online from https://www.deviantart.com/flordeneu/art/Newspaper-collage-texture-420597208. Of course, now the artist is getting promoted to more people, like, my two occasional readers.

media more difficult to succeed, of which the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is but one example, where perfectly legal private copying of already purchased content (such as for back up or home use convenience) was made illegal and hardware and software encryption requirements imposed on playback device manufacturers.  Yes, piracy is bad for business.  But you know what was even worse for business?  Trying to milk as much profit as possible, instead of adjusting business models, and especially when alternatives exist and are likely inevitable.  Case in point: CD-Audio never really came down in price, even though the costs of manufacture is much lower than the old LP replication costs, and ditto for DVD versus VHS.

 

Newspapers long had classified ad income as a major source of revenue and were indisputable leaders in doing so, but operations like Craigslist ate their lunch, despite having to build classified ad business from scratch and, no offense, despite an ugly look and difficulty in use.  Instead, print newspapers bitched and moaned and saw their subscription base dwindle and ad revenue (especially classified ads) drop.

So, okay, this failure to change is a near-universal aspect of long-established businesses run by humans.  The paywall approach so many online versions of newspapers are pursuing is, unfortunately, more of the same, and increasingly harmful to a well-functioning democracy.  It should be stipulated that news from many various sources is better than news from a single or few sources, and that a well-informed citizenry is better than having a bunch of ignoramuses go to the polls (or stay home).  There’s no need to go back in time to find examples of consequence of poorly informed segments of fellow citizens, I also stipulate.

If you have plenty of money, well, I guess that subscribing to online editions of five or six or whatever number of news sources isn’t a financial burden, but if you are one of the 90%, financial burden this is.  And even then, restricting yourself to one or two sources for any specific story may not be best, since reading a story from different sources is often very useful for perspective, and, of course, there are stories that are less likely to be covered in one place, while more likely covered in another.  I haven’t even touched upon the national-versus-local newspaper problem, a problem of paying at least two subscriptions, nor the additional costs if you need to track topic-specific content such as a local business journal or professional or trade periodicals.

In my own news consumption, I find that there are sources I no longer link to, even if their headlines seem most compelling and the sources trusted, because I have used up my minimum free access, or there is no free access at all, or because I have little interest in giving a newspaper in Dubuque my email address to sell to marketers or because, dammit, I’m not going to whitelist (turn off ad blocker) for yet another goddamn extortionist site. What I’ve love to do is get a preview, and then pay a reasonable fee to read the article if I want.

And what is a reasonable fee?  Not a buck, I’ll tell you that, not when I could in theory (and assuming free and infinite tele-transportation) buy the whole paper copy for a buck. How about $0.25?  Or a thin lively dime?

Micropayments are now a thing—they’ve been a thing for nearly two decades, or a century if what the phone companies used to do is counted—and for the occasional article, I’m happy to pay something, but I neither want a subscription nor want to pay for one. Alas, the old media, despite their “Digital Divisions,” remain old in their thinking, giving up potential revenue and promotion to potential readers or even—Gasp!—potential subscribers by over-controlling and over-charging access.  Newspapers, the so-called Fourth Estate, are also falling short of their supposed public responsibility, although the money argument should be more than enough for them to reconsider the current practices of the paywall.

Now, if only I can get this essay published somewhere, for a lot of money!

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