Metering and paywalls are not the answer

Journalism, like other parts of our democratic system, is in crisis. But raising fees is not the answer.

I read with interest Geoff Meeker’s recent column defending The Telegram’s new paywall that charges readers to read the paper online ($9 a month to access seven or more articles). As far as rationales for paywalls go, it was one of the best I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot of them, as several big-chain papers have adopted this model in North America in the past couple years (I’ve written on this topic before too – you can read a more humorous response to the issue here). Meeker is one fine example of the type of excellent journalism he describes in his column: his work analyzing media and holding government to account over the years has contributed in no small way to that all-important function of journalism: keeping the basic foundations of our democratic society alive and healthy. And he’s right: it’s essential we keep papers like The Telegram alive, to do that job. But I have to strongly disagree with the methods he’s defending; that is to say, the use of a paywall.

But it’s hard – actually impossible – to get angry at a journalist who supports a pay wall. After all, it’s not like they’re a poster-child for corporate capitalism: they simply want to do their job, without worrying it’ll come crashing down around them and they wind up on the street. That’s not so much to ask. It’s also important for journalists to know they have the ability to pursue stories and write about the news without worrying about the impact that exposing corporate corruption (or even just government incompetence) might have on their ad budget. In fact the saddest part about the business is that journalists wind up having to defend policies they would probably prefer didn’t have to exist in the first place. They just want to do their job. Instead they get stuck on the front line in a class war pitting principle, ideology, and harsh reality against each other in the most divisive of ways.

But with all due respect to the journalists, I cannot and will not support a pay wall. Not for my paper; not for any paper. The fact is, it won’t work. Not just pay walls but the idea that a newspaper, if it’s doing its job well, can be a financially self-supporting entity is complete nonsense.

Newspapers, like justice and health care, don’t pay for themselves

No newspaper has ever prospered – and few have survived – through the free market system. There have been brief periods of exceptionalism, buoyed by unusual economic booms, but it’s rarely sustainable. Advertising revenue – unless you want to just publish a rag full of ads and never offend challenge anybody – will never make a newspaper self-sufficient. Corporate chains bring the power of mass market purchasing and production to newspapers, but that doesn’t work on a long-term basis either – as we see with the TransContinental chain right now – and when it does it invariably means that reporters get stifled in what they’re permitted and encouraged to report on. I know enough journalists to know how true this is.

So there’s the sad fact of it: journalism doesn’t pay. Newspapers cannot survive in a self-sufficient way on their own – never have and never will.

There are two models that have worked, or might work: patronage, and government support.

The greatest newspapers have had their brief booms mostly because some well-intentioned or eccentric rich person or people felt a need to contribute something to society, and gave a bunch of journalists all the money they needed or wanted to run a paper. The patron/benefactor knew from the outset that it was going to be a losing venture, but they didn’t care (and from time to time they’d be able to recoup some or all of the costs through ad revenue). And they didn’t interfere with what the journalists did. They had enough money to be willing to burn on a cause they believed in, and on something that contributed back to society. Some of these papers didn’t last long, but they created a lasting and meaningful impact in our society, and often brought to fruition some of our society’s greatest writers and reporters. Then they folded, or got bought up by corporate chains that recognized their popularity and potential. But, once the willingness to lose money on them disappeared – as it does when a corporate chain purchases a paper – the paper’s power and potential quickly dissipates.

Other models of patronage exist too: papers propped up by more partisan interests, like political parties (often behind the scenes) or influential teams of politically active investors with an interest in promoting particular ideas or discussions.

Another, better model of financial aid

At other times, some papers have been able to eke out a survival in the context of strong government support, where generous government subsidies, grants and tax breaks supplement ad revenue. And let me be clear: this means hands-off support. This means governments providing financial aid to newspapers on the understanding that those papers are going to be investigating government, exposing government, and criticizing government. Why should they do that? Because that’s the only way to ensure a healthy and functioning democracy and a healthy and functioning society. You know, we had this thing in Canada up until a few years ago called the ‘Court Challenges Program’. Basically, this was an off-shoot of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Government knew, back when government was a bit more honest than today, that the best rights and freedoms in the world are no good unless they’re enforced. Unless they’re actively used, to fight for rights and protections through the courts. And that costs money; lawyers don’t come cheap. And the people who most need to go to court to defend their rights are people who don’t have money; they’re average people, which is to say they’re not rich. And so the ‘Court Challenges Program’ provided funding for people who wanted to go to court to fight for their rights. In other words, government funded people taking government to court. It’s not a paradox, it’s honest democracy in action. And some of the greatest human rights achievements in this country came about as a result of that program. Of course, one of the first things the Conservatives did upon coming to power was to axe the program. And we know just how much our democratic rights are valued by the Conservatives.

Newspapers are the same. They are the lifeblood of our democracy. Most of us are far too caught up in our own lives to be able to investigate government corruption, unaccountable spending, to challenge policy decisions, to investigate social inequalities and crime. To shed a light on the parts of our society that aren’t working and need fixing. Or even just to let us know what interesting stuff is happening in our society: in music, in arts, in literature and movies and pop culture. To be able to participate in our society, we need to know what’s on the go. And that’s what reporters and newspapers do: they tell us what’s on the go. It’s a vital function.

And, as I said, they also hold government to account and protect our democratic freedoms. Many have called journalists “the fourth estate” – i.e. the fourth essential component of a free democratic society.

If we’re willing to fund government and the courts out of the tax system, we ought to fund journalism too. We don’t say it biases court decisions to be publicly funded, do we? And neither should journalism, as long as it’s no-strings attached and impartially endowed.

There’s ways to do this. Government can allow free use of the mail system for newspapers (this is how the American newspaper industry got its start. In fact, one of the reasons for developing a postal system in the first place was to ensure newspapers were delivered around the country, thereby empowering an educated population. The founders of American democracy recognized democracy would never work unless everybody had access to news and printed debates on public issues, and were fully informed about what was going on in their society). Government can make extremely generous tax breaks for donations to newspapers, or even levy a media tax on large corporations that can be focused into a fund that is disbursed equally (or along some proportionality system) to newspapers that apply and are deemed eligible by a non-partisan body. This has actually been proposed in various countries as a response to the crisis in the newspaper industry.

Many of the public funds and grants that used to be available to newspapers, magazines and journalism are being eliminated in this country, and we see the result: magazines folding and newspapers putting up paywalls.

A response, but not a solution

Paywalls are not the answer because they act in direct opposition to the function of the newspaper business. The business of newspapers is to inform and educate. Under a paywall model, only those who can afford it wind up being informed and educated. Broad swathes of people who don’t have the income to spare wind up being left in the dark and excluded from essential public conversations. These exclusions wind up being classed, racialized, and more pronounced in some regions than others. Yes, papers like The Telegram have excellent columnists and commentary. And those excellent columnists ought not to be forced to only write toward the rich in our society.

$9 a month? Might not seem like a lot but in a society where we’re drowning in fees, mysterious charges, increasing costs of living, shrinking wages and incomes, unstable finances and precarious employment, yes, it actually is a lot, especially when it all adds up along with the other costs in our society.

One of the added ironies is that newspapers rely on the free labour of many people in our society. They rely on underpaid and poverty-stricken artists and musicians to produce the entertainment news that they cover. They rely on the actions of everyday citizens who organize rallies or write letters or expose problems, to generate the news they report on. They rely on the time and energy of readers to share content and do their social networking for them. Will we be able to invoice a newspaper every time they quote us in their paywalled pages?

I speak facetiously, of course. And my target isn’t the journalists. I want to be able to do this job too, and it’s darn hard. Here at The Independent we work hard to provide great content but as writers we can barely afford the computers we write on (which we pay for out of our own empty pockets, by the way). But it’s not about who’s the greatest martyr – it’s about how we can collectively ensure a diverse plurality of voices that everybody in our society can access regardless of income and other barriers. Here at the Indy we’re trying to boost our ad revenue, and we’re exploring other ideas like selling optional annual memberships for people who want to become sponsors or sustaining supporters. Is this column turning into an ad pitch? Hell, why not.

But charging for content won’t solve the problem, and will only contribute to the ongoing decline of journalism and critical thinking and critical discourse in our society. Journalism and newspapers will never pay for themselves. And nor should they. Yes, we should all support journalism because unless we want to live in a tyranny it’s the only way to ensure our democratic rights and values. But paying for it at the front door is not the way because it disenfranchises those who most need journalism, and those in whose name journalism ought to be conducted (what do the letters in ‘VOCM’ stand for, again? Voice of the Common Man? Thankfully they don’t have a paywall, but if they did they’d have to change their name to VOPM – ‘Voice of the Paying Man’). We ought to pay for journalism the same way we pay for justice, and health care, and roads and education – through a progressive taxation system that provides public funding for the things we rely on for our society to survive and thrive. At the very least, we need to be able to supplement ad revenue with generous government (i.e. taxpayer, i.e. reader) support.

I sympathize with the journalists who are struggling to keep their paper alive, and I earnestly hope they succeed. But paywalls are not the answer.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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