'Paywalls' on articles restrict engagement of community in news

HeraldPaywallThe digital age has introduced many new concepts to society. From technology to the internet, we are always connected. Due to the internet's inherently free nature, online news outlets are always striving for new ways to make a profit.

Slate magazine is testing a "membership" plan for those who want more access to their online current affairs and culture content.

As journalists, we must learn to balance profit and quality work. However, paying for increased coverage raises the question: shouldn't all news access be free for the general public?

"Paywalls" — in which readers must pay for their online news before being granted access — mean that those who don't have the means to pay for online articles have more difficulty accessing news.

Given that journalism serves the public interest in sharing and allowing the community to engage in news, the practice could be seen as limiting democracy. This would affect the public overall, as it is important that everyone has equal access to the news.

Slate's new membership plan, Slate Plus, is $5 per month, or $50 per year. For that, we can receive "special access" such as advertisement-free podcast listening, reserved seating for Slate live events, interaction with editors and writers, and the opportunity to recommend which celebrities or politicians Slate should profile.

Lessons that I've learned as a studying journalist always include an important ideal — that journalism is a practice of democracy. If journalism is a public service, and one where involvement of the community is vital, then some members of the community may be unable to pay, and thus feel left out of the news sharing process.

Social media also plays a great factor in the sharing of digital news. According to Pew Research Center's Journalism Project, half of Facebook and Twitter users get news from those sites. If online news becomes harder to access, how can the community continue to share it via social media?

However, when speaking to professional sources in the industry, they discussed more of the positives than negatives of paying for online news.

According to John Hinds, president of Newspapers Canada, there shouldn't be a major difference with purchasing a newspaper at your local convenience store and purchasing an article online.

"It's all about recognizing that it has value and that you are willing to pay for the content," Hinds says.

An interesting point he mentions is that when the internet was introduced, newspapers used the new technology as an advertising tool. By having a digital copy or online version of the paper, it was aimed towards directing new consumers to the print edition.

A concerning issue for the journalism industry, however, is that the salaries of journalists are heavily based on what the public is willing to pay for.

Lorne Motley, editor of the Calgary Herald says, also comments on the positives of selling news online.

"If you believe that what you do is important to the community and your readership agrees with that and will pay for access to the news, then it's kind of a win-win," Motley says. "The way we look at it, the journalistic work we do is very important to the community."

HeraldPaywall2Paywalls usually ask for readers to pay a certain amount to continue reading. This goes against the journalistic principle that journalism is a public service. It is important that everyone has equal access to the news.
Photo by: Victoria Stey

Motley says it's the content that matters, whether you have to pay for access or not. On the other hand, not everyone may decide to pay for certain articles and they may decide to look elsewhere for news coverage.

This is what I think may happen if more news organizations join the practice of charging for online content.

Similar to Slate's new model, the Calgary Herald's "general news" is posted online for free. However, certain stories that have more in-depth coverage or that took longer to put together are the articles that one would have to pay for, Motley notes.

That, I believe, is still making it harder for the public to be informed. We as journalists do not have the right to alienate readers. Those who do not want to pay for news online would simply turn to other sites for their news.

A membership with an online newspaper can be a serious commitment for some. And those who don't decide to shell out may find it harder to engage in the media. Having to pay for direct access to editors or writers does not follow the journalistic principle of being transparent or honest. Equally, no one in the community should find it daunting to participate in the news.

There has to be a healthy medium, one that will support journalists and the hard work that they do, and another that allows the community to access online content without restrictions.

Perhaps those who want to show loyalty to their newspaper could download a smartphone app for $0.99. Introducing donation options, where readers could choose however much they feel the article was worth might also be effective.

Calgary Journal reporter Victoria Stey is exploring media ethics as part of the Bachelor of Communication-Journalism degree at Mount Royal University.

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