Paywalls are born from the economic reality that we have to pay for good journalism somehow. But even a necessary evil is still an evil. There should be more creative and flexible ways to support the industry that keeps us informed.
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You know it, you hate it: the dreaded paywall.
We’ve all slammed into them. You see a tantalizing headline shared on social media. You click on it to see the whole story. You read the first few lines with growing anticipation. And then—wham!—a popup in your face, demanding that you subscribe to keep reading.
So loathed are paywalls, there’s a whole cottage industry of ways to get around them. There are browser plugins, websites that promise to “unpaywall” news sites, and other, even more… dubious methods.
Is this a rightful blow against corporate greed? Or is it an unsustainable entitlement on the part of readers who want to consume a product without paying for it?
Information wants to be free (but it isn’t)
One thing is for sure: staying informed isn’t cheap. After their short-term teaser rate expires, the Washington Post charges $170 a year. The New York Times charges $25 a month, or $300 a year. The Wall Street Journal wants $39 a month, or $468 a year!
That’s a lot of money for information which rarely has any direct impact on your life. If all you want is to know the ground-level facts about what’s going on in the world (which, for most people, is more than enough), there’s no need to pay for it. You can easily stay informed by following social media or watching TV.
That’s especially true since these mainstream publications have an infuriating habit of false balance. They frequently place cranks, science deniers, conspiracy theorists, and corporate astroturf groups on the same level as actual experts and give them equal amounts of space, attention and credibility. They engage in lazy horserace coverage that asks “Who’s winning?” rather than “Who’s right?”
They also have a bad habit of lavishing sympathetic coverage on fascists, election deniers, and other deplorables who should be ashamed to show their faces in civilized society. Rather than call these people what they are, the media has played a part in laundering their views with euphemisms like “racially charged” or “cultural clash”.
On the other hand, journalism is a job. Someone has to do the work of reporting what’s going on in the world, and if they’re doing that work, they deserve to be paid for it. For all the media’s flaws, it’s a vital check on the rich and the powerful who would otherwise have impunity. It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism that exposed stories like the Catholic coverup of child abuse.
Like most moral dilemmas, this is a collective-action problem. The benefit to any one person of paying for journalism is small. But if no one was willing to pay, the industry would collapse, and we’d all be worse off for it. We’d all be more ignorant and more helpless, deprived of the ability to make good choices. Cranks with big platforms would face no opposition in spreading their message. Politicians could take bribes, the powerful could commit crimes, and businesses could scheme and collude with little fear of exposure.
In this light, you might describe paywalls as a necessary evil. As much as readers hate them, they have a purpose. If they didn’t exist to nag and frustrate us, there’d be no motive to pay for journalism, other than the abstract satisfaction of doing a good deed.
Some media, like the Guardian, have a pay-what-you-want policy. That shows a praiseworthy amount of trust in their readers. But is it sustainable over the long term? Only time will tell.
A suggestion: Offer subscription tiers
I’ll admit, this is a problem for me personally. I’m always on the lookout for stories I want to write about, and I get my news from lots of different sources. I don’t want to be a free rider; I’d like to support quality journalism. And I do pay, as and when I can. But they all charge hundreds of dollars a year for a subscription. It’s not in my budget to pay that much for every newspaper or magazine I ever look at.
Also, even when I have a subscription, paywalls discourage sharing good journalism. I have less incentive to post a story on my social media accounts when I know that most of my friends won’t be able to read it.
Here’s my humble suggestion: Why don’t more newspapers offer subscription tiers?
Paying hundreds of dollars for an unlimited-access subscription is a bigger commitment than most people will entertain. But if more newspapers charged, say, $10 or $20 a year for a limited-access subscription that let you read five or ten articles a month, I’d happily take that deal. Instead of having to choose just one or two media outlets to support with my dollars, I could support lots of them.
It might even be a good deal for newspapers. With a smaller commitment, they could persuade more people to sign up. From a marketing perspective, it would be the first step in a funnel. If you like what you read and want to see more, you could upgrade to a more expensive plan. To me, it seems like a win-win.