Democracy dies behind paywalls

From What’s New in Publishing:

We all surf dozens – even hundreds – of sites and sources, yet none of us can afford to subscribe to everything we’d want to consume. But today we are being forced to subscribe wherever we go – cutting off everyone from access to diverse and crucial information. This is dangerous – here is why.

One of the most important taglines in recent history may be the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” To me, it is a mission statement about journalism’s role in society – to inform, to explain, to educate. It implies that if you don’t have access to information, you are simply in the dark. Today, in 2022, it looks like democracy now dies behind paywalls.

This morning, I wanted to read about how a new “anti-white bigotry” movement is gaining momentum – but then I hit a paywall. So I tried to access an article about Twitter dissolving its Trust and Safety Council, but hit the paywall again. A story about Moderna’s mRNA Cancer Vaccine looked very interesting, but could I read it? Not without a subscription.

And by the way, none of these articles were part of my subscription to the New York Times – so I could only read about them somewhere else. This happens to all of us all of the time.

The Internet gave rise to a massive paradigm shift – moving from the paperboy delivering news on our doorsteps to us now accessing any news we want to with a click on our phone. The way content is consumed has fundamentally changed – from a ‘push’ model to what can now be considered ‘pull.’ We live our lives online, looking for content ourselves — the stories we like, the news we’re interested in, jumping directly to the content we want.

The rise of paywall apartheid

In their search for revenue sources to compensate for dropping advertising, publishers are increasingly making quality journalism only accessible to paying customers. It’s understandable from a business perspective. If you have great quality content behind the paywall it attracts users and converts some of them into subscribers – that’s especially the case with exclusive content that explains and interprets important societal, political, and cultural events. But by focusing on subscriptions as their primary revenue source, publishers are making this journalism only accessible to paying subscribers, and that’s where the danger lies.

After all, what are we going to do if we simply don’t want to pay for a subscription (whether because we can’t afford it, we simply have too many subscriptions, it’s a nuisance to sign up, etc.)? It is a pain.

Because the nature of publishing has changed from push to pull, if a reader cannot afford a subscription to access a publisher’s content, they will end up going somewhere else, where the content is available to them easily, or for free, or they bail entirely.

According to a recent NRG and Toolkits report, 53% of U.S. consumers say they attempt to bypass paywalls on publishers’ websites when they encounter them. 66% of respondents say that paywalls make them dislike the website or publication, with 40% saying they instead search for the content on a different website. And this can have potentially disastrous results as it is precisely those freely accessible sites that often have incorrect, biased, or outright false perspectives and narratives.

Extreme political organizations would never have gained such popularity if their discussions and opinions were locked behind a paywall, but because it was free, it drew people in much easier than paid versions. In cases like this, by only allowing access to content via a subscription, publishers are potentially funneling people in the direction that they actually want to protect them from – into the arms of free content that may inspire them to think entirely differently.

The problem is real for everyone – even Elon Musk suffers from it. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview (prior to his acquisition of Twitter):

I don’t want to get a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but I’m sure they have, every other day, a good article that I’d like to read. But I don’t want, like 12,000 subscriptions… I understand that all these publications want to maximize their subscribers… But there’s a huge number of people who are never going to subscribe to that publication.Elon Musk

73% of US consumers don’t subscribe to digital publications

According to data just released by the NRG and Toolkits report – 73% of US consumers don’t currently subscribe to digital publications at all. In other words, most people just won’t subscribe. This means we run the risk of being trapped in information bubbles, fed by search algorithms and the limitations of the content we are able to access. If we don’t subscribe to a publication, we don’t get access, which in turn means we have less access to diverse content. Instead, we turn to content that is free – and often more biased, and as the search algorithms learn and reinforce our consumption habits, the information bubble becomes ever more solid.

I think we’d all agree that everyone would benefit from more access to better, quality information. Better content allows for a better culture of discussion and debate, maybe even leading to more balanced political decision-making. And that is not only a good thing in its own right, but it also leads to potentially less extremist points of view.

Limiting the pool accessible to all other readers to just a few pieces of content or media can simply have dangerous effects on civil society and its understanding of democracy. The fewer people who have access to high-quality information from diverse sources, the easier it is for populist or even extreme platforms to pursue their business without counterarguments, and the greater the likelihood that half-truths and fake news will be believed.

Link to the rest at What’s New in Publishing

PG is annoyed by paywalls, but doesn’t think they’re a threat to democracy.

If he really wants to read about a news item that’s behind a paywall, usually a Google search will lead him to another recent and relevant article about the topic, whether it’s a factual or opinion piece.

The most common major news publications that are paywalled are what used to be called newspapers or magazines. Some even print their publications. On paper. Which causes lovely trees to be cut down in a forest somewhere. Every issue results in more trees being cut down, which are then trucked to a factory that uses more energy to change them into pulp and then paper. Which has to be shipped to a big printing factory, unloaded into a warehouse, then moved from the warehouse to where the giant energy-consuming printers are located. To be turned into physical newspapers, which are then trucked or moved by other energy-consuming transportation means to a whole bunch of different locations where people actually read news on paper.

The electronic alternative to all this industrial age news technology is to use a bunch of organized electrons to send the information and stories all over the world with a small fraction of the energy it takes to use dead trees to transport information.

From an objective point of view, which way is the best method for rapid dissemination of useful and accurate information?

PG notes that there is no guarantee that information behind a paywall is more accurate than information that is not.

The large majority of “quality” traditional newspapers have always charged people who wanted to read them, so there’s always been a paywall on their content.

On many more than one occasion, the printed stories were not accurate or favored one view over an opposing view and included information, accurate or not so accurate, that reflected the “narrative” that the owners/editors wanted the public to hear and adopt as its own.

In newspaper days of yore, owners/publishers/editors thought nothing about promoting movements, contemporary issues, political parties, views of various types of commerce, etc., etc. In the glory days of American newspapers, a reader could choose a newspaper that closely mirrored her/his opinions about politics and many other topics. The internet didn’t invent that sort of thing.

7 thoughts on “Democracy dies behind paywalls”

  1. if a reader cannot afford a subscription to access a publisher’s content, they will end up going somewhere else, where the content is available to them easily, or for free, or they bail entirely.

    OK. So, what’s the problem?

  2. I’ve long wished there would be pools one could subscribe to giving access to all members of that pool to subscribers, say 10, 20, 30, articles a month depending on membership level. For instance, I’m not willing to subscribe to every Substack author I’d like to read, but I would subscribe to Substack on a basis like that.

  3. they act as if these paywalled publishers are objective and unbiased, this is usually far from the truth

    Besides, if it really is a good article, there are going to be a few dozen other publishers and blogs that will write a review of the article, or at least the critical facts of the article, so it’s not as if the raw info isn’t going to get out, just the analysis/wording of the author (and the authors I trust tend to not hide their work behind a paywall)

    The barrier to entry for a news reporter is vanishingly small, the problem is discovery, and paywalls (especially ones that block search engines) are not going to help.

  4. Oh the irony: “I can’t find out more about a subject from my online newspaper [which he subscribes to], so the fault must be the paywall.”

  5. I love how the author is bemoaning paywalls and the fact that people can’t read articles behind them, and then turns around and claims that the information available for free is likely to be wrong in some way.

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