Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Media Rants: Resist Predatory Paywalls

Resist Predatory Paywalls

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri 

Question: What do American newspapers, colleges and universities, and religious establishments have in common?
Answer: They are all 19th century institutions addicted to flawed 20th century corporate business models that undermine their ability to survive meaningfully in the digital 21st century.

That question and answer occurred to me recently when the Oshkosh Northwestern, the Appleton Post Crescent and most other Gannett Empire print products announced that online readers would have to pay for accessing news content online. The imposition by newspaper corporations of “digital paywalls” is not new; the WallStreet Journal pioneered the payola scheme in 1997. Declining ad and subscriber revenues pushed other papers to play with paywalls, most notably the New York Times. The only surprise about Gannett is that it took them so long to join the paywall ring.

Gannett’s is a “soft” paywall because nonpaying customers get unlimited access to some content as well as a certain number of “free” articles each month before the paywall kicks in. If you’re not a paid digital subscriber, each time you click on illuminating stories like “UFO Over Grand Chute” or “Burger King Betting on Bacon Sundae” (that story was quite  the whopper) you’re  reminded how many articles you have left before being coerced into paying the Gannet Empire Download Duty.
Paywalls are a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem. It’s like religious institutions responding to declining church membership by squeezing more money out of the remaining loyal flock. Or colleges and universities responding to dwindling external funding by raising tuition to levels that force some out and others into decades of debt.

How did these cultural institutions, all of which should play primary roles in making America a more just society, get to this crisis point? The answer deals with the flawed manner in which each institution defines its relationship to The Public. I only have enough space to deal with newspapers, but a similar dynamic exists across institutions.

In the 19th century, American newspapers in the new nation saw The Public as something to “shape.” Newspapers were “propaganda” organs preaching values consistent with the revolutionary ideals of the Founding Fathers. Van Wyck Brooks once wrote that the “American mind” is not shaped by books, but by “newspapers and the Bible.”

The legendary New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer epitomized the shaping function when he lent the weight of the World to raising money for construction of the Statue of Liberty pedestal. Pulitzer of course saw his actions as a way to promote the paper, but his fixation on getting Americans to support “liberty” made it difficult to think of profit as his major motivator.

Eventually Pulitzer did become primarily business centered. He and the New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst were dueling innovators skilled at exploiting scandal and sensationalism to grow circulation and enhance advertising revenue. By the early 20th century, the commercial newspaper business sees The Public not as something to shape but to “seduce.” Advertising rates increase as publishers deliver more readers; the more seductive the content, the more eyes on the page. As media scholar Dallas Smythe argued, 20th century mass media secured windfall profits by selling audiences to advertisers. To get audiences to play such a subordinate role requires sophisticated seduction.

Digital paywalls are an extension of the 20th century seduction model. Audiences are made to feel that they are somehow “freeloaders” if they click links without subscribing. By paying up, the audience member is somehow “supporting journalism” even though journalism worthy of the name was sacrificed long ago in the interest of the corporate bottom line. By signing up for a digital subscription to a Gannett paper (or any paper), all you are really doing is improving the media corporation’s chances of raising digital advertising rates.

I’ve heard responses to Gannett’s paywall announcement similar to what blogger Matt Yglesias wrote about the Wall Street Journal paywall: “I read the WSJ sometimes. But it’s going to be a cold day in hell before I voluntarily surrender money to firms controlled by Rupert Murdoch when there are alternatives.”

Ben Bagdikian’s classic The Media Monopoly describes Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of self serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.” If you need to read a Gannett paper, maybe the paywall is the excuse you’ve been waiting for to take that daily walk to the public library. There you can read the paper for FREE.  

Paywalls improve the corporate bottom line in the short term. For newspapers to survive in the long term, a new relationship to The Public is necessary. The new relationship must be one of “service.”  Josiah W. Gitt, late editor of the York, PA Gazette & Daily many years ago articulated a vision for newspapers that transcended shaping and seduction: “A newspaper is a public servant and to be permanently successful must be faithful to the interests of the public it serves. It dare not be selfish. It dare not be mercenary.”

Media corporations are by definition selfish and mercenary. The new relationship can developed only by independent newspapers not fixated on the bottom line. Want to save journalism? Resist predatory paywalls and contribute instead to independent publications.