How Paywalls are Making Us Dumber

04.20.17
The New Yorker
Media /20 Apr 2017
04.20.17

How Paywalls are Making Us Dumber

The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The Times, and The Spectator are all high-quality conservative news websites and all are hidden behind a paywall. Without access to free, high-quality, right-wing news, working-class conservative voters have been forced to read free sources of low-quality news, such as the Daily Mail, Fox News, Breitbart, and Red State. This has directly contributed to the success of President Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France.

Those are some big claims. So let’s take a step back — way back to 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. It’s hard to imagine the web being invented by one man in one place, but it was. It’s even harder to imagine that the internet was mostly ignored by news organizations for five years, but it was. As a result, it wasn’t until 1994 that the Telegraph, the flagship newspaper for British conservatives, became the UK’s first news website.

By allowing people to see their news for free online, the Telegraph started a precedent, at least in the UK. It would be unfair to say that it was solely responsible for the demise of print journalism, but it certainly played a part.

It soon became clear that there was a problem. Online news was free and so people were much, much less willing to pay for it offline. It was also clear that traditional advertising could only do so much to pay for quality journalism. This remains the case. In 2017, most people are blind to banner ads or they have ad-blocking software. Either way, less than 0.2% of people click on them. In the end, this left online news sources with only two choices, neither of which was particularly great: accept ever greater payments from advertisers for ever more sophisticated advertising campaigns and second, force users to pay for a service which, up until now, they hadn’t been paying for in the hope that other online news sources would do the same.

As of today, many news sources indulge in a bit of both and all serious news sources do at least one. The first option is what is known as sponsored content or native advertising. This is when a business pays a news organization to write something in their newspaper. This sounds like advertising but, of course, it isn’t. Advertising is clearly displayed as separate from news. The idea of sponsored content is to intentionally blur the line between news and marketing.

It’s not a popular strategy and it’s one which has attracted the ire of critics such as John Oliver. However, there are two things to bear in mind about native advertising. Firstly, native advertising is only as bad as the company who write it and the publications that allow it. Some publications make a point of clearly identifying their sponsored content to readers and some companies make a point of writing something that is actually newsworthy. This Guardian article on the death of Salomé Karwah is well-sourced news, but it’s also sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Guardian clarifies all sponsored content clearly and all of it is labelled accordingly.

Of course, some publications don’t make a point of clearly identifying their sponsored content and some companies don’t bother to write something that is actually newsworthy. The BuzzFeed article about cute dogs is mindless, clickbait nonsense, and it’s also sponsored by Subaru’s dog-based campaign. BuzzFeed doesn’t really have a policy on sponsored content. In fact, by the looks of it, it’s perfectly happy posting quizzes that are sponsored by two different companies. Whatever brings home the bacon.

The second thing to bear in mind about sponsored content is that paywalls are the only alternative to it. Either you don’t pay to read the news and accept that there will be at least some sponsored content on that website, or you pay to read the news. There is no third option — at least not for now.

Just as with sponsored content, there are two kinds of paywalls. Either publications allow you to read a few articles before charging you (a “soft” paywall) or publications force you to pay to read any of their content (a “hard” paywall). Back in 2009, David Simon (ex-journalist and the creator of The Wire) advocated strongly for all news organizations to erect paywalls in order to save high-quality journalism. In the end, only one half of high-quality news outlets listened to him: the right half.

This isn’t a coincidence. Left-wing politics is often dominated by the idea that people have a right to free things from large institutions: a right to free healthcare, a right to free movement of people, and a right to free journalism. Right-wing politics is often dominated by the idea that people do not have a right to things from large institutions: healthcare, restrictions on immigration, and paywalls.

The end result is that the vast majority of people are either reading high-quality center-left or low-quality hard-left news outlets (because they are free) or low-quality hard-right news outlets (because those too are free). And that isn’t just speculation; the data backs it up. The high-quality center-right outlets are there — they exist and they produce good content — but they aren’t free.

So how did this lead to the rise of Trump and Brexit? Because it was the white working-class who voted overwhelmingly for both. If you’re working poor in the US or the UK and you already lean conservative, why on earth would you pay to read center-right news when you can read hard-right news without paying?

Slowly but surely, this led to the legitimization of extreme-right news sources and, ultimately, to the rise of “fake news.” With the center-right silenced behind their own paywalls, the center-left publications are the ones doing the online fact checking on fake news.

Understandably, moderate conservatives have every right to be skeptical of fact-checking performed by an overwhelmingly left-wing media an issue which appears worse than the rise of fake news. Conservatives wind up feeling that almost all of the mainstream news they read online has a left-wing bias. They’re right, of course. Mainstream journalism online does have a left-wing bias ever since right-wing journalism started asking readers for money which diminished their online readership. These same news organizations still turn a profit (perhaps even more than their free, left-leaning rivals) but they are nowhere near as popular online.

There’s data to back this up. Of the 15 biggest news websites in the world (according to estimated monthly visitors in April 2017), only three lean right and one of those three has a paywall. All of the other websites on that list either lean left or are neutral.

There’s clearly a demand for high-quality, free and high-quality conservative news. However, there’s currently no supply. This freak economic situation has created a kind of freak journalism and freak politics. Donald Trump is president of the United States, an idea unthinkable just a few years ago. Britain is leaving the European Union, an idea unthinkable just a few years ago. And the next President of France could be a leader of the National Front, an idea unthinkable just a few years ago.

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