The Soapbox: Scaling the Great Paywall no easy task

Justin Crann
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On Tuesday, Canadian political columnist Andrew Coyne launched an open discussion on popular internet forum Reddit.

Among the subjects Coyne addressed was the paywall model being introduced on the websites of several major Canadian publications.

“I’m a believer, in the long run, even though it’s going to be rocky in the interim,” he wrote. “It just hasn’t been a very pleasant experience until now. Plus we need to put out better content — sorry, I meant WRITE BETTER STUFF. I’ll pay for good stuff. I won’t pay for crap.”

The paywall model has been the subject of considerable debate.

Advocates for paywalls cite the decline in print advertising revenue as a key justification for switching over to the pay-to-read model.

But the critics argue that paywalls will result in a net decline of public discourse and harm the ability of an individual to inform himself or herself about the issues affecting his or her society.

Given the general perception of modern society as being mostly uninformed — or, in the very least, poorly informed — on key issues, it seems prudent to heed the voices of dissent.

However, as an individual working within the media industry, and with a particular focus on print and digital media, it is tough to look past my personal bias and see the ethical and socioeconomic issues that arise from charging for information.

To be fair, media companies have been in the business of providing information since the inception of the industry. The concept of a town crier shouting the news to the populace free-of-charge is a novel one; media companies provide a service in exchange for the readership’s money.

The quality of the information and the manner in which it is being presented determines the value readers attach to a publication.

Still, the question remains, if every major national newspaper were to take the paywall road, where will people look to get essential information? Further, how will that information be disseminated, discussed and dissected?

There is no questioning the simple truth that the Internet has opened the door for the widespread distribution of information. Social networking sites — most notably Twitter — have become the means of a near-instantaneous breaking of news stories.

But with that widespread distrubtion of information comes, hand-in-hand, the distribution of misinformation.

Consider, for example, the early reports of flooding on the New York Stock Exchange floor during Hurricane Sandy, spread via Twitter and eventually picked up by CNN, that ended up being completely and utterly false.

The facts in this argument are thus: information is essential to a functioning society and that information must be accessible; there must exist a body of individuals — preferably trained — that can be held accountable for the spread of that information, the quality of its presentation and its accuracy; and, frankly, it is only reasonable to expect those professionals will want to be paid for the services they render.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Media professionals, myself included, should anticipate that charging for access to online news will result in more demand on the companies we represent to produce high-quality content, and especially content unique to the Web, that will be worth purchasing. This, in turn, will lead to an increased demand on the professionals.

I think it’s safe to state that nobody wants to be fed falsehoods. Hopefully, most don’t want to be pigeonholed in a single “information bubble,” with no ability to inform themselves of issues and perspectives that exist outside of that enclave.

As it stands, society must ask itself: what is the monetary value of accurate information, delivered by a professional who can be held accountable for its accuracy and quality?

“Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it,” Publilius Syrus declared more than 2,000 years ago.

How incredibly prescient he has proven to be.

Organizations: New York Stock Exchange

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