Over the past few centuries, it’s been said many times, in many ways, how the cornerstone of democracy is a free press. For the sake of having a more free and just society, we also want an informed society. Newspapers, news websites, news stations, and so on must have the freedom to write about anyone, or anything, at any time, in order to hold the world’s most powerful institutions in check. In the same way that news institutions need to sharply critique the policies of other institutions, though, it’s equally important for citizens to be able to carefully scrutinize the news they read: to ensure that all news sources, from the New York Times to JoeBillysNews.com (not a real site!), use proper citations, follow journalistic standards, correctly present information, don’t misrepresent facts, and so on, in order to make sure that the public isn’t just informed, but accurately informed.
So, in that spirit, I have a critique: what’s the deal with paywalls?
For those who might not be familiar with the term, “paywalls” are what we call those screens which flash up when you’ve read a couple articles on a specific news site, displaying a message along the lines of, “You’ve read 2 of 3 free articles this month. Please subscribe.” Once you read all 3 (or however many) articles, the news site will then cease to display “free” articles until the following month. Basically, you get walled out. Kinda like this:
Now, I understand the principle behind this. New sources are a business. Understandably, that business needs to support itself, a task which has become more challenging in this era of digital revolution. The problem? Getting people to actively read the news can already be a challenge, and that number is only going to dwindle further if doing so requires coughing up a weekly or monthly subscription.
The truth is, we live in the age of free information. If a news site puts up a paywall, it doesn’t encourage people to subscribe: it turns them away. This results in lower readership, which in the long run, damages the business. Paywalls are an attempt to impose old standards upon new formats, and they don’t work. The bigger problem, though, is one of ethics. The “must pay if you want to read the news” model isn’t just out of date, it’s dangerous for democracy.
As a writer myself, I strongly believe that clear, informative, well-sourced news should be freely available to every single person, of any class, of any demographic, in order to promote a more educated society. Paywalls are a form of classism: they create a fiscal barrier between lower-income individuals and proper news sources. There are countless individuals and families out there who simply can’t afford a monthly subscription, because if it comes to choosing between food, medication, or a newspaper, basic needs are going to win the wallet battle. As a result, paywalls run the risk of sending potentially informed individuals into badly-sourced, less-refined news sites, thereby resulting in a less educated populace. Kind of goes against the spirit of the free press, doesn’t it?
We should want a strong free press, but we also need a press that provides free information, as well. While news sources need to find new ways to support themselves, the immense disadvantages of paywalls (both for moral and business reasons) prove that they are an ineffective method, as well as being problematic for society at large.
What do you all think?