I remember one of my professors in my journalism classes telling us that the first thing we have to do in order to succeed in the course is to get a subscription for The New York Times.
My first reaction to this statement didn’t fare too well since I didn’t plan on paying more money for something that I can find online for free. But as I began my search for news articles online, I realized how wrong I was. One site after another blocked me from reading the entire article until I paid for a subscription to the newspaper or outlet. Out of frustration, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled out my debit card to pay for a subscription to The New York Times.
Many media outlets large and small have adopted this business model of digital paywalls, where one has to pay or sign up for a monthly subscription in order to have access to the news and other information. While there are many reasons as to why media outlets have made this shift, the underlying concern and question that arises is forcing us to ask how much damage these paywalls are doing.
The restrictions placed on information that should be easily accessible to the public are destroying the way we consume news and making it easier for alternative (or fake) news sources to be more widely accepted. But news outlets are resorting to the model of paywalls out of urgent need.
According to an article by Harvard Business School, a Pew Research Center study showed “the once-profitable newspaper industry has endured upheaval due to changing technologies and difficulties securing capital ... Growth in digital advertising revenue has failed to offset the decline in print advertising, resulting in a hemorrhaging of newsroom jobs across the country.”
The decision to implement a paywall isn’t simply a suggestion coming from the business department of the newspaper. Many presidents of magazines and other famous outlets have come out to explain that their brand's print distribution is not enough to keep the outlet alive and running. It is not paying the wages of the workers that are out day and night bringing the breaking news to our fingertips. But are paywalls helping us consume news in a better way?
While they generate revenue for media outlets, paywalls seem to be making it harder for many people to access news. A Reuters report from 2017 asked, “Why is that only a minority pay for online news?”
Paywalls are forcing people to simply stick to one media outlet and restricting many from looking at a variety of sources. It is limiting people further in their online echo chambers since the question now isn’t “will I pay for news?” but more like, “how many news outlets will I pay for?” Those with the privilege to afford those subscriptions still tend to only pay for one rather than multiple.
Not only does this heavily impact the way we consume news, but also the way we create news. We must ask ourselves as journalists and content creators whether financial solvency is more important than the truth we are pursuing. Money makes the world go round and it’s hard putting out work when you can’t put food on the table. But is there a future for journalism that doesn’t come at the expense of public information and news?
The goal of paywalls is to help keep media outlets afloat, but what about informing the public? The people deserve to know the truth and the whole truth. If traditional media isn’t where people are going to get their news, they will find it in other spaces that may or may not offer an accurate picture. Are we willing to risk that?
Putting a price on public information and the truth has and will continue to fundamentally change what we know and how we know it. We must not let the weight of the changing world crush our values because at the end of the day, all we have are our words.