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Paywalls aren’t blocking access to high-quality news
PLUS: CNN is in denial
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Paywalls aren’t blocking access to high-quality news
Nobody can argue with a straight face that the legacy media is in a healthy state. According to one recent report, the industry just set a new record for the number of newsroom jobs cut in the first five months of a calendar year.
But at the same time, many media executives would agree that the sector has a much stronger business foundation than it did a decade ago — back when outlets were hemorrhaging print revenue and struggling to monetize their online audiences. The morbid joke back then was that they were “trading print dollars for digital pennies,” and while we’re nowhere close to bringing back the pre-internet profit margins that newspapers and magazines enjoyed, most outlets today are squeezing more revenue out of their online audiences than ever before.
Much of this success — if you can call it that — is due to the widespread adoption of paid subscription models. Not only have they provided crucial revenue diversification that helped shield publishers from the vicissitudes of the ad market, but those publishers are also much less dependent on the whims of the large tech platforms for distribution. Subscription models are by no means a silver bullet, but they’ve played a crucial role in shoring up media losses and helping to fund important journalism.
That’s why I find it so strange that there’s a growing chorus of pundits who believe that the widespread adoption of subscription models has been bad for democracy and our information ecosystem — that they’ve created a stark divide between the information haves and have-nots.
The latest entry in this niche is an op-ed from Lydia Polgreen in The New York Times. Polgreen spent three years as the editor-in-chief of HuffPost, and she writes about that decade or so of magical thinking when everyone believed quality journalism could one day be completely subsidized with advertising:
With its clever, large-format headlines and populist sensibility, HuffPost had the feel of a left-of-center tabloid, like The New York Daily News in its heyday. We would make news for everyone on the internet, for free. Corporate America, via digital advertising, would foot the bill. If this all sounds overly optimistic, if not downright naïve, well, it was. But what else could one do in those desperate postelection days but fuse dreams and work and hope for the best?
That dream never came to pass, and a sizable portion of text-based journalism began to retreat behind paywalls. But rather than celebrating the fact that this new business model helped strengthen journalism institutions, Polgreen believes it made our information ecosystem worse:
In an ever more unequal world, it is perhaps not surprising that we are splitting into news haves and have-nots. Those who can afford and are motivated to pay for subscriptions to access high-quality news have a wealth of choices: newspapers such as The Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times compete for their business, along with magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Niche subscription news products serving elite audiences are also thriving and attracting investment — publications like Punchbowl News, Puck and Air Mail. The people who subscribe to these publications tend to be affluent and educated.
She then suggests, as others have, that this dynamic has allowed free, highly partisan misinformation to flourish. Those who can’t afford access to quality journalism, this line of argument goes, are forced to settle for the Breitbarts and Daily Wires of the world that leverage outrage bait to drive Facebook engagement.
I can understand the appeal of such an opinion — especially if you’re worried about the role partisan media bubbles played in undermining our democratic norms — but I just don’t think it holds up to logical scrutiny. In fact, I don’t believe there’s ever been a time in history when the average citizen had so much access to high-quality, free information.
The biggest flaw in the argument is its treatment of paid content as some sort of new phenomena, rather than a deviation back to the norm. That decade when nearly every publisher decided to provide free access to all of their content really was a historical anomaly. In the pre-internet age, most print publications cost something to read. While free outlets did exist — most alt-weeklies, for instance, were freely disseminated — I can guarantee you that they’re much more ubiquitous today. And the free broadcast channels across radio and television that flourished back then are still in existence.
Is it true that many of the premium publishers now feature some sort of paywall? Yes, but no matter your interest, there are a huge number of high-quality YouTube channels, podcasts, news sites, newsletters, and social media accounts dedicated to that niche. Some of the best economic analysis in the world is being disseminated on places like Substack and Twitter, and longform podcasts allow experts to go extremely deep on just about every topic. A half hour before I sat down to write this article, I watched a 20-minute video explaining how global warming has placed Greenland into the center of a geopolitical quagmire due to its proximity to melting oceans. It was free to view and just as good as any reporting you’ll find at the Washington Post.
There’s also widespread online curation that disseminates and summarizes the most important news that’s published behind paywalls. Hell, HuffPost’s entire business model is predicated on this sort of curation. When you take paywall meters into account — which allow consumers to sample articles on most subscription sites — then it’s entirely possible for a person to maintain a rich media diet without spending a dime on content.
What about local news? I certainly won’t deny the emergence of news deserts, especially in non-urban areas, and that this has probably played a role in the deterioration of a shared reality between rural conservatives and urban liberals. But that has nothing to do with the embrace of subscription paywalls and everything to do with the travails of the newspapers that once thrived in those regions.
I think the bigger problem is that a substantial portion of the population simply seeks out low-quality information sources. The reason that educated coastal urban dwellers are more likely to subscribe to the New York Times probably has more to do with those readers flocking to that publication and less to do with their ability to afford a subscription. If The New York Times removed its paywall entirely, rural conservatives without college degrees wouldn’t suddenly embrace it as a beacon of truth.
(I should pause to issue a caveat that I don’t think all rural conservatives are uneducated or that all poor people seek out low-quality news sources. I’m just arguing that the existence of paywalls doesn't play a defining role in their information choices.)
So what’s causing this moral panic around access to news? I think it’s the fact that there are more opportunities than ever before for consumers to hit paywalls. 30 years ago, you were mainly limited to the news sources available in your local area, but now it’s easier than ever to click on a random link in your Facebook feed and land on an article hidden by a paywall. This creates an anxiety where one realizes they don’t have complete universal access to all published information. But while it does suck to hit a paywall, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a rich ecosystem of news information for those who want to access it. There’s a lot of fake news on the internet, but subscription models aren’t the root culprit.
What do you think?
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15,000 words profiling CNN's (now former) CEO, and not a single paragraph detailing the network's biggest weakness: its near-total devotion to growing its audience on linear TV, a dying medium. [The Atlantic] Imagine an alternate reality where The New York Times was still focused entirely on growing its print business. That's basically where CNN is right now. It operates one of the most popular news websites on the planet, yet it’s clear that senior leadership treats the online presence as an afterthought. Until CNN recognizes that its cable viewership is never coming back, it's going to continue facing perpetual decline.
There’s been an industry-wide pullback from narrative podcasts over the past year, but public radio stations are still seeing success with the format. [Current]
A cool new trend: the next generation of horror filmmakers got their start on YouTube. [GQ]
No signs yet of a recovering ad market. [Digiday]
There are some interesting ideas here on how WashPo could diversify its content offerings to strengthen its subscription business. The New York Times owes much of its success to anticipating the end of the Trump Bump and building out other verticals like Recipes, Games, The Athletic, and Wirecutter. [A Media Operator]
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