Paywalls are a double-edged sword to media freedom

I took peevish (and admittedly childish) pleasure from registering my name on the Business Day Live website as ‘Annoyed by the Registration Process’, so that when my confirmation e-mail arrived it read “Dear Annoyed by the Registration Process, welcome to BD Live.”

I felt I had pulled one over on the man. Sure, I was miffed that the website lists as required information just to read articles: my name and surname, gender, age, my position, responsibility, and industry. Publisher BDFM (Pty) Ltd would have never had access to this information had I popped down to the shops and forked over my R12 for the print edition. This opportunistic information harvesting was no doubt driven by commercial considerations—perhaps to provide advertisers with a better view of the demographics of BD Live’s readership?

That the publisher had the temerity to list these things as compulsory information for the digital version made me feel it’s okay to feed hogwash to the privacy-invading machine. After all, their privacy policy, which makes no mention of BD Live’s information harvesting or the purposes thereof, cautions: “ultimately, you are the one responsible for maintaining the secrecy of your personal information. Please be careful and responsible whenever you’re online.”

The heart of my consternation, though, was what the registration process meant. This grand publication, whose news content is a must-read for anyone with a desire to be informed (which should be us all), was to disappear behind a paywall. As Peter Bruce, then editor, now publisher, said earlier this year, there are fewer than 10 standalone business dailies in the world and Business Day is one of them. He said the financial crisis and rise of the digital age have transformed newspaper and publishing business models the world over, and if Business Day did not respond accordingly, it’d be over for the paper. The registration process and information harvesting was the precursor to a paywall.

But so far, the paywall is just as leaky as Bruce promised. It’s nothing like Financial Times or Wall Street Journal, which limit the number of free articles you can read before directing you to the credit card machine. In fact, I’m not even sure if BD Live’s paywall is actually still in place because I’ve been reading regularly without being prompted to sign in (or pay) to read more, which makes it a truly curious approach. What was the point of the whole exercise, or is there more to come? Naively I hope that this neither-here-nor-there approach means that BD’s editorial team and publishers share my crabbiness over paywalls and the threat they pose to media freedom.

This discomfort over paywalls is best illustrated by a recent example. Hurricane Sandy, currently battering the US east coast, prompted the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to drop their paywalls to allow readers access to critical up-to-date information during the emergency. Presumably these publications recognised that they have greater reach than New York City’s emergency management team, so decided to use that power to ensure that no lives were lost during the hurricane as a result of a lack of accurate, up-to-date information. But as a former resident I know there’s an emergency in NYC a few times a week. Presumably with better access to information—some of which may now be behind paywalls—those affected may make different, perhaps live-saving choices had that information been freely available.

Yes, I know the NYT and WSJ aren’t known for their reporting on emergencies in the city—news channel NY1 is better and more suited to that. So let me tailor my example to something more suited. What if on the eve of the presidential election the NYT secures exclusive information that could sway the outcome; information would allow voters to make a more informed choice? The existence of the paywall would mean that this information would take longer get out and, by that time, voters’ decisions would be irrevocable.

Bringing it back home, I turn again to the newly released press code, which waxes poetic about the role of the press and press freedom. Press freedom, it says, “enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the time, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution.”

My reading of this isn’t narrow. It isn’t just about allowing members of the press the freedom to go about gathering and reporting news. Equally important is having timely news reach members of society—who the press serves, according to the code—so that they can make informed judgements. Paywalls inhibit this flow of information and, consequently, press freedom, too.

Sure, gathering and reporting news isn’t cheap. Bruce said recently that the editorial costs of Business Day, sister publication Financial Mail and business channel Summit TV are R85 million a year and set to increase to R100 million a year over the next five years. For the print publications, circulation revenue and advertising used to cover the bulk of this, circulation less so as many papers were sold at a loss (I doubt that R12 covers BD’s circulation costs). But now that advertising revenue is drying up, publishers are looking toward their readers to cover the shortfall, as evidenced by the move to paywalls, particularly those doing so on similar pricing structures to print. BD’s “e-edition”, for example, costs the same as the print edition when the former surely costs much less to create and distribute.

Demanding that readers make up for the fall in advertising revenue is an unfortunate response to an inherently contradictory, if not flawed, business model on which the press has always operated. Selling a newspaper automatically limits the accessibility of the news therein and defeats the ultimate purpose of gathering news. The move toward paywalls is further denial of that contradiction.

Few publishers have admitted that paywalls giveth and taketh away. At the same time as paywalls provide funding for already bare-bones editorial costs, they limit the accessibility and true purpose of gathering and reporting news. As a result, even fewer publishers are engaged in earnest introspection on what it would take to save the industry without compromising why the industry exists in the first place.

It just takes one publisher respond to shrinking revenues by being truly innovative and re-thinking the business. I’d like to see a newspaper publisher go the social enterprise route, have a stab at Wikipedia-style crowdsourced information, or even try crowdfunding. On the latter, the humble e-book bundle showed that folks are prepared to come out of pocket in a big way—$1.2 million big ways, to be exact—if their pay-what-you-want contributions went toward the creators of the content (in this case authors) or charitable causes.

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One thought on “Paywalls are a double-edged sword to media freedom

  1. NAB says:

    Although I too am opposed to paywalls, I prefer this to the power that advertisers have had to suppress freedom of the press.

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