For those who like keeping up with the news, the internet can be a perilous place. Following a series of links, readers everywhere are greeted with a familiar message. “We hope you’ve enjoyed your 20 free articles this month,” the New York Times’ pop-up says. At this point, many readers click away, and try to find something else less taxing on their wallets.
While there is no shortage of free, ad-based news organizations online, many of the more trusted sources (such as the Times, Wall Street Journal and The Economist) now exist behind a paywall. While these paywalls are initially annoying, they could be the future of reliable news. And that can actually be a good thing. Consumers supporting credible news sources will help keep them more independent, relevant and substantial.
It’s nearly common knowledge that print ad revenues have been declining for some time, forcing newspapers to make the switch to an online format. According to the The Economist, in order to keep their books in the black, these news sites have resorted to a number of tactics, including what is known as “native advertising,” where sponsored ads are made to look like ordinary articles. While some attempt to make any advertising attempts obvious, many readers can’t always tell whether something is a real article or not.
Many news organizations across the U.S. have survived by being bought out by a larger media companies, leading to a small group of people owning much of the media outlets in the country. These companies can push their agendas onto their smaller branches, such as local newspapers, and often establish requirements in content and how much their content is viewed.
Obviously, these are huge problems. Given the current state of financial instability when it comes to news, these paywalls may offer an alternative path forward. Revenue generated by regular subscriptions could negate the need for these less desirable methods. Those more savvy with the Internet may recall a site called Patreon, where users pay an upfront cost for content they support. In the case of YouTube’s content creators, funds generated from this extraneous site allows them to deliver their videos free of ads and otherwise sponsored content. When we apply this method to news organizations we trust, it creates a situation where they are ultimately responsible to their primary source of revenue—their readers.
This switch in the public’s mindset toward news isn’t a far-fetched idea, either. With services such as Netflix and Amazon gaining subscribers every day, consumers are showing more and more they are willing to pay for online services, so long as they find it worth their time. And in the midst of our contemporary debate over the term “fake news,” I would say this certainly fits the bill.
By moving to a more subscription-based system we can make the news world less about the number of clicks, and more about content. Subscribers would enjoy a healthy stream of well-sourced and editorially independent content without having to scavenge the rest of the internet for something that looks reputable. Perhaps then, when we are more confident about the information we are taking in, these readers will be more willing to cite their sources in a debate, as we collectively decide what’s right and wrong. There will always be the Breitbarts and Huffington Posts of the world who will continue to utilize alternative methods, but more trusted sources have an opportunity to show the American people what made them trustworthy in the first place.
At this point, it’s important to mention that not everyone can afford these subscriptions. Though they have a comparatively low cost, the simply truth is not everyone will be able to swing it—and that’s all right. Organizations like NPR and the BBC deliver quality news coverage at no cost to the listener. However, for those who can afford it, these two run much thanks to the listeners who support them.
Lastly, the free exchange of ideas involves a shared understanding of facts and knowledge. When we support the news organizations that hold themselves to a high journalistic standard, we are showing what we value. Quality journalism is something we can’t afford to lose, and if we show our interest now, perhaps we can stave off the “death of journalism” yet.