The Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest selling newspaper, on Monday revealed that it will introduce a paywall system in 2013 for content.
Shortly after, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others all lifted their paywalls to ensure readers could get free access to the surge in information about the impending landfall of Hurricane Sandy on Monday night.
The NYT did this before, in 2011, during Hurricane Irene, but it just proves the absurdity and confusion over our modern flow of information.
I understand the need to pay staff – hence the introduction of paywalls after years of allowing people to see information for free. I also understand that charging for information was the easiest solution many newspapers could come up with.
But turning it on and off like a faucet is bizarre. Of course you have to switch it on when people need information. It shows there is still a measure of trust of official sources of information, with the NYT website easier to remember than, perhaps, emergency city websites (though you can easily get essential information from those sources via Twitter). It becomes a bit like dangling a string attached to vital sustenance in front of someone who hasn’t eaten in two days: here’s information you need now, but after this, it’s not information you need.
It teases people to get used to free access to information, again, and then takes it away.
Paywalls have always struck me as incredibly hypocritical. Newspapers and news organisations campaign and fight for those in power, in government, in business and even celebrity culture, to provide us with information for free. Then we ask the readers to pay us to access that information. We demand an openness we don’t provide, and act as sleazy middleman when some corners of the world need vital open and accountable democracy and civil society.
The newspapers that have lifted their walls are doing so for legitimate reasons – they remember their core duty to be a source of information to the public. People want to know what’s happening and the media is still the go-to guy, even if those same readers and viewers grumble about the media’s corruption and inaccuracies the rest of the time.
It’s long been recognised that when newspapers first discovered the web, they provided their content for free and let the genie out of the bottle. It can never go back. Yes, papers like the NYT and some others are finding surprising success. I’m not denying that people will pay, particularly for up-market and business-related products such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.
But for everyday readers, they can get information from TV or a myriad of websites all competing for eyeballs.
In the same way as American voters are hoping for leadership a week before the presidential election, they are also looking for leadership from their information sources.
Wall-to-wall information and reporting from some local media and products such as the NYT are good examples of leadership. But they’re on a clock.
And it raises the question of what are you left with after the information leaders recoil again behind a wall. Data anarchy? Possibly not so melodramatic, but I’m still more likely to turn to sources who argue all their information is essential and trustworthy, not just during storms. Those are calmer sources than the information currently breaching the walls of US news outlets.