The Problem with Free News and Paywalls

In a digital era, it seems to be a matter of course that news is free. Thousands of free email newsletters, the newsfeeds of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accustomed us to free and instantly available news sources. Over many years people were able to access the web articles of nearly every major news publication for free, and it became a habit for people.

The Habit of Free Content and Paywalls

The problem is the following: In 2018 the majority of reputable news sources have implemented a paywall in one or the other way. A paywall requires you to pay upfront for accessing news articles. Some publishers have a strong paywall which does not let you access any articles without paying. Others allow you read a certain number of articles for free each month. Then some publishers let you access their content for free – but only as long you don’t use or disabled your adblocker.

In either case, the newsfeed headline reader, who wants to read the entire story, is confronted with a big headline asking for a monthly subscription or an even larger headline asking to disable his ad-blocker. You can imagine the churn rate of the majority of users. The result is an army of headline readers who either don’t want to read the full article or who are actively discouraged from doing so.

If a user experienced an ugly paywall with certain publishers several times, it is likely that he will start avoiding the website entirely. He will either stay a headline reader or find free alternatives for his news consumption.

There are undoubtedly several independent and reputable non-profit or open-source news sources. However, the majority of free sources is most likely the result of hobby journalists, bloggers, propaganda state media, or otherwise biased organizations or individuals.

The reader who refuses to pay for news content, therefore, ends up either being a newsfeed headline reader or relying on sometimes dubious alternative sources of news. But there is another problem with paywalls: the problem of exclusivity.

The Problem of the Paying Reader

Now let’s imagine one of the few surpassed the paywall and decided to pay for a particular publication. Now this person pays from $5 up to $50 per month for a single and specific source of news. I argue that it is rather unlikely that the average user will pay for a second or even a third publication. Thus, the person who pays for a specific publication will most likely rely on it as his single source of news.

The Combination of a Free-News-Attitude and Paywalls Leads to a bad informed Majority

My argument is that the combination of the free-news-attitude and extensive paywalls is necessarily leading to a more impoverished informed majority. So what to do about it?

The first thing you can do is use the contingent of free articles of many publishers like The Economist or Harvard Business Review. Besides, it is essential to find a few trusted free sources of news. These may be blogs of reputable journalists, podcasts, or mostly independent media under public law. Examples are, e.g., BBC and DW from the U.K. and Germany.

Do you agree that paywalls are a problem for our public education and maybe even a reason for the rise in populism? Leave a comment below!

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