April 21, 2024

Paywalls And Knowledge Democracy Demands

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Several years ago, we received a call from a person who had recently subscribed to the newspaper. She discovered that the stories and the photos of the week’s publication were also on our website – free. She asked for a refund.

Free is not a business model. 

At the same time, shutting people out from the news required to be educated citizens is not a model for sustaining a representative democracy. Still, without the revenue to sustain our business, we wouldn’t be publishing any stories.

We soon implemented an online model that provides our subscribers with a digital version of the newspaper. We still have our free websites, but they provide minimal news; teasers of the stories published in the print edition.

In a column she wrote for the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism research center, and school, Tara McGowan raises an apparent contradiction at The Washington Post. ““Democracy Dies in Darkness” reads its slogan published below its name on the front page of the printed edition and on its website.

She asks, “So then why do the Post and many other legacy news publishers leave so many Americans in the dark?” They do this when they put their content behind a paywall. We are among those legacy publications. Our newspapers go back to the 1880s.

While we make pennies on our digital content, Facebook and Google sweep up journalists’ reporting across the nation and make billions of dollars off them. Paywalls are intended to shift some of that revenue to the newspapers that pay to create the content. At the local level, in small towns across America, these companies and others like them have destroyed the business model that supports journalism and democracy. We will never generate the revenue from internet publication to sustain us. We are too small.

“While that (paywall) strategy has helped bolster news organizations’ bottom lines at a time when a healthy free press is sorely needed, it has also had the dangerous side effect of leaving the vast majority of Americans in the dark,” McGowan writes.

McGowan goes on to say that American news consumers fall into three groups. There are the elites who can pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for the content they want and need with multiple subscriptions. They upgrade their subscriptions to include exclusive content the average subscriber doesn’t get. These subscribers include lobbyists and others who use in-depth analysis to shape legislation that benefits their clients.

Then there are those who buy the basic online subscriptions to stay informed. This group benefits from quality reporting and analysis, just not to the degree of the elites. They are also a very small percentage of the electorate.

Finally, there is the great mass of Americans who can’t afford to subscribe to digital editions or aren’t interested in subscribing. These “passive” news consumers rely on social media, discussions with friends, and maybe, television news.

“Passive consumers may have faith that good, accurate news about the world and their own communities will somehow find them,” she writes. “But with few exceptions, they’re wrong.” Instead, they are fed misinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda carefully engineered algorithms to confirm their prejudices and fears. 

McGowan asks that newspapers fight this blockade of news citizens need to be informed by taking down their paywalls, at least for the 2022 elections. Newspapers already post critical public safety and breaking news content on their websites for free, she says. It wouldn’t take much to turn off the paywall for elections.

There are a couple of problems with her suggestion. First, the stories we write in the two years between each election educate citizens on the quality of their elected officials and the issues facing their communities. It is the depth and continuity of this coverage that citizens take to the polls.

Second, too much political reporting leading into an election is “horse race” coverage. It deals with the accusations campaigns throw at each other, the latest canned political points, and who is ahead in the polls.

“Who will govern the governors? There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves,” America’s third President Thomas Jefferson wrote. “They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government.”

What happens when reliable news for those who must keep the “government pure and the governors honest” no longer have the information required to do their duty? We are seeing the consequences today of the loss of a well-informed citizenry.

If we are to stop writing for the elite, though many who subscribed to our digital editions would hardly call themselves “elites,” we need a sustainable source of revenue. Many who subscribe are among the decision-makers in our schools, cities, counties, and region. That does, even at the local level, place them among the elites. They drive the policies that matter most to us – those that have a direct impact on our lives where we live.

But it is imperative to democracy that the average citizen also have our reporting if it is foundational to a healthy government and society. We are a public good. When there are potholes in our roads, citizens share in the expense of fixing them. Our democracy has developed more than potholes. It suffers from deep fissures that are tearing the nation apart.

If we lose our community newspapers, it will further tear America apart as people focus solely on what they get from national news and the internet.

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