- Editor’s Note: This article is written by Jim Fuller, senior writer with the Daily Herald newspaper, college newspaper adviser and immediate past president of the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. Click this link to read his blog directly and subscribe to additional posts.
I feel my blood pressure rise when I see comments like this on articles I post to my Twitter feed:
But then I remember it’s all my fault.
Journalism must do a better job of explaining the increasing use of paywalls to access online content. And it has to start with journalists themselves.
Most news outlets gave away all their content online -for free- for way too long. As the internet hit its stride in the late 90s, ownership simply didn’t see the future of content delivery that was already becoming obvious.
An interview I had for one of my first jobs in journalism featured a conversation with an editor-in-chief that went something like this:
EIC: How many newspapers do you subscribe to?
EIC: How do you expect to get a job in the news business when you don’t follow the news?
Me: I do follow the news. I read it all online.
EIC: Ha! Well, you can’t take your computer into the bathroom with you.
Enter any public bathroom now and you’d be hard pressed to not see or hear someone replying to an email, banging out a Tweet or scrolling through a search engine or clicking on an app.
But it wasn’t smartphones that changed the game. It was the internet. And even as journalists marveled at the new ease of use in finding information and sources, we didn’t sufficiently prepare ourselves, or our readers, for the paywalls that were to come.
As ad sales plummeted, we built paywalls. The business model of the industry flipped. We now chase subscriptions with as much enthusiasm as we ever solicited full-page ads from the local auto dealerships.
In short, dear readers, we need your subscriptions to cover the costs of producing the news and information you come to us for.
Just like your groceries, your electricity and the water that flows through the pipes in your dwelling, the news costs money to produce. Just like you, journalists need to make money to pay our bills. And, just like you, journalists believe in an honest wage for an honest day’s work.
That word “honest” brings me to the other type of criticism I now see on social media when I post articles that are behind a paywall:
This comes from a gentleman who has adopted the view that any news article that isn’t slanted toward the way he views the world is biased and so-called “fake news.”
That term is a problem worthy of its own discussion. But underlying the comment is another fact journalists can’t ignore. Many, if not most, of the propaganda outlets who dress up their biased content to look like objective news still give away their content for free.
It’s contributed in large part to the flood of propaganda shared on social media that real, objective journalism now finds itself competing with to win readers’ attention.
When the information is not free, some people who are being conditioned by propaganda to not trust objective journalism now see paywalls as an effort to hide what we are doing. And that goes against the very model of deep transparency modern journalism has rightfully and increasingly adopted.
This alone is reason to continue to give away a limited amount of our content for free. How much to give away for free is up to individual publications and journalists. But we must give the public, especially those being steeped in propaganda, access to enough free content to see the difference between objectivity and actual fake news.
We also have to go one step further. This is now the fight of individual journalists. We can’t rely on our publications or corporate ownership or our sales teams to educate the public about why we put paywalls in place. Whenever, wherever, we get feedback from readers like the comments I shared above, we have to take a breath and explain why there are there.
We’re not trying to price gouge anyone. And we’re certainly not trying to hide. Information is useful, valuable and costs money to produce in the engaging, relevant fashion journalists provide. It’s way past time for each of us help our readers understand that.