The tug-of-war between the business necessity and a democratic right to information
As audiences turn to the Internet and away from traditional news platforms, media organizations have had to find new ways to fund their journalism. One method used by many media companies is the paywall—providing news to online readers, but at a price.
While paywalls represent a revenue solution for journalism, they also pose a growing barrier to accessibility.
“When your readers are paying for your journalism, that’s an important endorsement of its relevance,” says Edward Greenspon, former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and author of the 2017 Public Policy Forum report The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. “By the same token, [paywalls] can also have the side effect of excluding low-income people from being able to access news.”
Journalism is critical to informing the population about important ideas and issues, and building civic engagement. When news is put behind a paywall, it has an adverse effect on those who can’t afford to pay for a news subscription—usually those who can least afford to be left in the dark.
According to a 2017 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Report, 18 per cent of individuals who do not pay for news do so because they can’t afford to. The report also states that only eight per cent of all Canadians surveyed paid for online news subscriptions in 2017.
Professor Alfred Hermida, director of UBC’s School of Journalism, wonders if paywalls are worth it, when multiple news outlets often cover the same story the same way.
“If you’re The Globe and Mail and you’re covering the Liberal leadership debate, are you offering [something] that is distinctly different that people are willing to pay for, when they could just go to CBC and get it for free?” asks Hermida.
According to Hermida, The Globe and Mail has been moderately successful in its subscription fee route, due to its specialized content, in-depth articles on financial news, stock portfolios, and insider information tailored to its business demographic. Yet when it comes to general news, Hermida believes that most Canadians still prefer free content.
“I’d argue that, given that there is so much free news across media, it doesn’t matter if a few people put things behind a paywall because there’ll still be free news in the media,” says Hermida. “What you might not get is more specialist types of journalism.”
In this age of paywalled content, cost-conscious citizens are largely left with libraries and community centres to maintain their access to specialized news and information.
Julie Douglas, assistant manager of e-books and digital collections at the Vancouver Public Library, says the library has seen a 27 per cent increase in use of the subscription-based aggregated news website, Pressreader, which provides access to over 7,000 publications from over 120 countries in 60 different languages. (In addition to Pressreader, which is free for all VPL cardholders, customers also have subscriptions for The New York Times online service and their print version.)
“I mean, it’s got the daily local newspapers that people are interested in, it’s got the national content. The other draw to it is all of these international newspapers. Patrons really connect with that,” says Douglas. “Just being able to make that available and accessible to people is really what libraries are all about.”
In 2017, the VPL registered 185,000 visits to Pressreader. While these visits account for patrons visiting multiple times from the same library card account, the numbers are still significant to Douglas. “It means that we’re investing in the right thing, that this is a resource our community wants and they make use of it so it’s doing really well.”
For those who do not have an address or the valid ID needed to apply for a VPL card, there are various community centres around Vancouver that either have partnerships with the library or host tech cafes. One such area is the Carnegie Community Centre, which not only co-hosts a learning centre and a computer lab with Capilano University but also partners with the VPL to deliver these resources to those living in the Downtown Eastside.
“A membership at the Carnegie Community Centre is open to anyone in the neighbourhood,” says Karla Kloepper, assistant director of the Carnegie Community Centre. “Our services are for community members. You can get a membership at the front desk; it’s $1 for the year. That provides access to phones, computers, lots of our programming and some of our other sources.”
Members of the Carnegie centre have full access to the resources the VPL offers its own cardholders, including Pressreader. Offering similar services Downtown Eastside is the UBC Learning Exchange at Oppenheimer Park.
Dynamic shifts in news media revenue streams have forced various news outlets in Canada and abroad to use subscription models to be able to continue their work. Yet the danger of excluding individuals through paywalls and fees remains ever-present.
Edward Greenspon notes that news outlets are turning to paywalls because advertising revenue is in rapid decline. They’re trying to find a way to get paid—and this is the one way they’ve found.
“Reporting costs money,” says Greenspon. “Both the declining revenues of the established media system and the relatively weak revenues of new digital-only news sites mitigates against being able to make the necessary investment. Therefore, we are at risk—as a country, provinces and communities—of having less and less robust coverage of our public affairs and of having regular dependable sources of information.”
Libraries around Metro Vancouver, in partnership with community centres, have stepped into the void to provide financially vulnerable residents free access to specialized online and print journalism. Julie Douglas of the VPL shudders at the thought of a city devoid of the online news resources provided by libraries and community centres.
“I just honestly couldn’t envision that scenario,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to, because this is our core mission: to make this content available. Because everyone has a right to learn and read and share information. It is the heart of what we do.”