Paywalls: Who gets the key to the iron gate?

Jana Isern, Assistant Editor

There are several variations of paywalls: the instant-pop-up, the bottom banner that moves as you scroll, the full-screen-sneak-attack that blocks the entire page, and the too-slow-pop-up that buys you just enough time to read half the article. Regardless of which, they all play the same purpose: keep the journalistic industry afloat.

It seems that paywalls have become a constant nuisance to news readers, often entrapping news behind a curtain of memberships or subscriptions, which some might not be able to afford.

69 percent of leading newspapers in the US and EU use some type of paywall, a result of the changing journalistic environment as the news has shifted from paper to online platforms.

Paywalls, along with their inconvenience, serve an imperative purpose to the journalistic industry, allowing for extra revenue, thus increasing pay for working journalists, equipment and resources, as well as an increase in the quality of content for consumers.

While all of these benefits are true and necessary, if the only way to manufacture substantial salaries for journalists is to bar the news produced by them from the public eye, then it becomes clear that a systematic reset within the industry is imperative.

Paywalls separate a large portion of the population from access to public knowledge, enveloping journalism in a hypocritical bubble as the goal to inform and educate the public on important issues, suddenly becomes void.

Studies have shown that “the people who pay for news in the U.S. are wealthier and better educated than those who do not” (Masnick, 2019).

Even so, most paywalls are unable to generate enough paying subscribers, making them pointless to both sides. Not only do they impede access but they fail to provide enough financing for newspaper companies.

Ph.D student at the University of Cambridge Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh stated that “putting up a news paywall can cause completely unacceptable asymmetries in the quality of news accessible to people with different financial circumstances which goes against every imaginable principle of democracy.”

So, instead of paywalls becoming a beneficial resource to journalists, they become a method of sifting out the disadvantaged population from the pool of public knowledge.

The thought of paywalls acting as a fortified stone wall that impedes easy access to news from the public needs to be abandoned and instead perceived as an intricately decorated iron gate keeping in the honesty and factuality of journalism, which can only be accessed with a key.

And, that is the main problem with today’s society and the journalistic industry, only a very select population receive a key to the iron gate.

Yet, the brutal reality is that paywalls are necessary for the management of the journalistic industry; they create independence within the newspaper to ensure that no third party pressure is imposed on the matter and content of the newspaper. But the question remains: Are they ethical?

When news remains behind a paywall, the public eye, specifically those unable to access through the paywall, shifts their attention to third party outlets such as Twitter to gather news, feeding the endless cycle that keeps the disadvantaged pinned under society’s boot. The news accessible become those lacking facts and instead spreading bias and lies. While there should be a choice to the media one reads, the choice becomes null when these sources become the only sources easily accessible.

Paywalls protect the independence of the newspaper industry, safeguarding it from the need for advertisements and government funding, thus maintaining its integrity. However, their purpose becomes useless when only a small portion of the population is privileged enough to access these high-quality articles. Is financial security more important than pursuing the truth of journalism?

Perhaps donations or sponsors need to be implemented instead of paywalls to ensure an equally accessible dispersion of knowledge. Or perhaps, the dissemination of truthful public knowledge needs to be prioritized.

Newspapers need to focus on adding quality and value to the news in order to gain subscriptions. Instead of barring important issues from the public, it needs to encourage monetary support from those who can afford it, by offering certain perks that are not otherwise necessary to simply gather significant information. Some options could be offering a deeper access to certain stories like columns that are not necessarily imperative to the spread of news, or offering a more interactive access with daily updates, recap videos etc.

The iron gates need to open to the masses and the journalistic industry needs to reorganize its priorities to ensure journalists are compensated without negatively affecting the ability to publish knowledge. It’s a hard balance but it needs to be achieved if the press is to maintain its honor in educating and informing the people of important issues.

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