Freedom and Choice: How to Strengthen Democracy and Skip the Lunchtime Blues
Access to information has been a right that anyone could afford since everybody was able to buy a newspaper at a newsstand.
By putting information behind a subscription paywall, however, that access effectively becomes a privilege — you can access the information if you can afford the subscription. And when a right becomes a privilege, it becomes a risk to society and can undermine the very fabric of democracy.
Does that sound too melodramatic? It’s not. Let me tell you why.
I’ve written repeatedly that 98% of audiences aren’t ever going to subscribe to a publication — whether because they can’t afford it, they have too many subscriptions, or they don’t value the content enough. In fact, when US consumers encounter a paywall, 40% will instead search for the content somewhere else, preferably where it is available for free.
The proliferation of paywalls is leading to a new form of media inequality. Those who can afford to pay for (multiple) subscriptions are able to access high-quality, in-depth reporting, while those who cannot are left with only more basic news and information. But that’s not the only problem — it also has the potential to expose audiences to incorrect, biased, or outright false perspectives and narratives.
Now, don’t get me wrong — there is a lot of excellent, quality writing available for free on the Internet. But there’s a lot of harmful content out there as well. Extreme organizations would never gain popularity if their discussions and opinions were locked behind a paywall, but because it is free, it draws people in much easier than paid versions.
Limiting the pool of content accessible to all readers to just a few pieces can have dangerous effects on civil society and its understanding of democracy. The fewer people who have access to high-quality information from diverse sources, the easier it is for populist or even extreme platforms to pursue their business without counter arguments, and the greater the likelihood that half-truths and fake news will be believed.
Simply put, everyone would benefit from more access to better, quality information. Better content allows for a better culture of discussion and debate, maybe even leading to more balanced political decision making. And that is not only a good thing in its own right, but it also leads to potentially less extremist points of view.
One of the most brilliant and important taglines in recent history may be the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” To me, it is a mission statement about journalism’s role in society — to inform, to explain, to educate. It implies that if you don’t have access to information, you are simply in the dark. Today, it looks like democracy might die behind paywalls.
There is no free lunch! But forcing someone into a lunch subscription isn’t the solution either.
As consumers, we want and need access to a diverse range of content. And that diverse content, by its very definition, will live on several — or many — different publishers’ sites. We need access to them all, but we will never subscribe to them all.
We all understand that publishers need to make money. It’s so important that they are successful and maintain their independence. There is no free lunch in this town! But forcing someone into a lunch subscription isn’t the solution either.
So why don’t we start talking about how we can go beyond the existing models? We’ll hear and learn from some of the bigger voices and thinkers of our times. See you next time!
This is a series of articles that explores where creators and publishers are today — and where the media as we know it needs to go in the short term. I’ll provide solutions and concepts for how to change the status quo at the end of the series.
NEXT: Make the User Great Again
In his 2009 Time article, entitled “How to Save Your Newspaper,” Walter Isaacson famously wrote:
PREVIOUSLY: Subscription Cannibalization is here. Just not as you think.
Let me ask you a question: how many of you jumped onto a new subscription because of a low-price promotion? Take a look…
Cosmin Ene has a wide spectrum of experience in monetization for content providers. For the last 8+ years he has worked with a broad swathe of publishers — from bloggers to local media to national and international publications — including the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, The Boston Globe, and Der Spiegel. Cosmin also has profound experience generating revenues from contributions for content creators and artists, having worked together with industry luminaries like Nick Knight. Recognizing that people’s digital content consumption habits have fundamentally transformed traditional business models, he advises publishers and content providers on how best to embrace user-centricity in order to remain profitable and to succeed in the 21st century.