Last semester, one of our journalism instructors asked us to first make a list of all of the magazines, newspapers, online publications and other sources of journalism that we were paying for. It was then followed up with a secondary list of which publications we would pay for.
My first list was empty, and my second list – at the time – consisted of the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times. That’s it.
It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for the work that goes into writing good pieces of journalism, and it’s certainly not that I don’t care. But with Google quite literally at my fingertips everyday, most of the day, I struggled to define what it is I’d pay for in an age where information is free.
And that is the problem with paywalls.
We are living in a world that places more and more emphasis on education, and on the “right” to information. It’s not enough to wait until the 6 p.m. news to find out which stories we should be paying attention to: We need raw news, raw information, all the time, whenever we want.
This need to know has been accelerated by social media – namely Twitter – and reinforced by the work of Wikileaks and groups like Anonymous, which are exposing once private and confidential information for all the world to see.
An online newspaper site putting up a paywall affects the Internet like a giant boulder affects the flow of a river: Traffic flows around the restriction, with no harm done and no resistance. (Why would you pay to learn what you can learn for free?)
In order for paywalls to be an effective means for accruing revenue, there needs to be a shift in the way society distinguishes between information and journalism.
The digital music industry is a great example. There are two choices: Pay $1.29 on iTunes for a song, or download it for free from somewhere else. One option is illegal, the other is expensive. Regardless, I have only ever purchased my music through iTunes, and have never regretted it. My rational is that I don’t have any problem paying for what I enjoy, and what somebody else has created.
So how is this any different from journalism?
The issue, I think, is that I haven’t looked at journalism the way I have, for so long, looked at music. I treat journalism like information: Something beneficial that I need to know and have a right to know. In contrast, music is a “luxury:” Something I could live without if I had to, an added form of enjoyment that I am willing to pay to enjoy.
What distinguishes journalism from “information” is that journalism is information that has been – or should have been – digested, analyzed, organized and challenged.
And that takes work. Do we have a right to know what journalism uncovers? Yes. But it doesn’t just magically appear either. It needs funding from somewhere, preferably from people who support it, and recognize its value. Most importantly, people need to recognize that its “value” is created by the journalist: Great journalism isn’t just a word-for-word replica of something that happened. Rather, it’s an explanation, an analysis or a discovery of what has happened, what is happening now or what is to come in the future.