The Paywall Dilemma 📰

News outlets are becoming more restrictive with their access than ever in an effort to make their paywalls stick, but it threatens to make misinformation far easier to access. A blogging pioneer has a great idea to potentially solve this problem.

(Brian McGowan/Unsplash)

The paywall is finally starting to pull its weight for many media outlets, with even those that were once skeptical finding success with such models. But as the strategy starts to mature and most large sites now have one, we have to be really mindful of the side effects—as everything we do online these days seems to have an ugly side effect.

Let me offer an example: The saga of the passing of Near/byuu, a prominent programmer in the emulation space, was worsened by the fact that a lot of misinformation existed around the circumstances of their death. Near faced terrible bullying, and that bullying created a sea of misinformation online around this person’s loss.

USA Today had a reporter write about this state of affairs, and the story they wrote did its homework—the reporter reached out to their former employer, as well as to close friends. This was exactly the kind of story that the video game scene needed for closure, that filled the information void in a way that cleared the air, but maddeningly, USA Today had recently put up a hard paywall, making the information basically inaccessible for much of the story’s target audience. Even one of the primary sources of information in the story couldn’t properly share it.

When the story went online last month, I literally tweeted something asking the newspaper to make an exception to this rule for this story, given its subject matter and its power, and … crickets.

(In contrast, Bustle Digital’s Input, an outlet with no paywall, covered a separate story involving some of the same players, and wrote about it in a way that was thoughtful about a challenging topic. This was what USA Today should have done with its even more in-depth reporting on this general topic.)

To me, this reflects a major problem with the newspaper industry’s approach to paywalls. Bills need to be paid, don’t get me wrong. But truthfully, we have information that could arguably save lives, a story about a person’s suicide and the toxic effects of cyberbullying—but instead of letting the target audience see any of it, the newspaper puts up a paywall so stringent that the vast majority of people who read it are effectively linking to archive pages or aggregated versions of the original content.

Now, it would be one thing if this was a piece of content that was very niche and narrowly tailored, along the lines of much of the content Business Insider or The Information publishes. But this was a piece about targeted harassment of a trans person—a trans person who was very well-known to their digital community.

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This was easier when we could pay for the news with spare change. (NeONBRAND/Unsplash)

Paywalls are a net good for the news industry at this time. People are willing to support outlets they regularly read, something that wasn’t true, say, 20 years ago. But the addition of paywalls onto content that could have impact on regular people means that they create an information void, one that those who aim to misinform or influence are gladly taking advantage of without consequence. And it’s dangerous—something that media outlets are supposed to exist to prevent.

And honestly, we need a solution to this problem, a way to flood the gates so that essential, impartial information can spread at scale when there’s something crazy happening … while respecting the realities of the news industry. And yesterday, a good idea for this came from Dave Winer, the programmer and RSS pioneer who has been thinking about challenges facing the news for decades:

Dave’s idea is essentially to build a highly promoted stream where large media outlets pool together their resources via an open medium (RSS) and deliver their important, paywall-free stories in a way that is easily accessible to everyone. Think an internet-native Associated Press for big stories … or a community-operated version of the sadly killed digital news outlet Breaking News, which evolved into the paid service Factal.

This is a good idea that lets news outlets keep their paywalls while creating a place for freely accessible, well-reported, big-deal information. This will take time and collaboration to implement, but we need something like that online right now, because misinformation is winning and the business realities of publishing news online are a big part of the reason why that is.

Don’t sleep on this idea. And to news outlets: Please exercise careful news judgment with your paywalls. It is a dangerous time out there to be stingy on objective reporting.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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