Baltimore, MD

I Hate Newspaper Paywalls

Ryan Fan

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The only newspapers I have subscriptions to are the Baltimore Sun and the Wall Street Journal. I can only really afford to be shelling out money to one newspaper, and that is the Baltimore Sun. Local news is more important to me than national these days, and I like to be as informed about what’s going on around me than about what’s going on across the country.

As for the Wall Street Journal, I guess it’s an alright newspaper to read. But I don’t pay for it (not directly). It’s a supplementary perk to me as a Johns Hopkins University graduate student. I joke frequently with my friends that now, I’m an archconservative who thumbs my nose at poor people. It’s obviously not true, but I never understood why every article, even those unrelated to stocks, needed to have stock prices headlined on every article. It’s a little nitpicky on my end, but I find it personally off-putting. If I’m reading an op-ed about Amazon unionization, why do I care about the price of the Dow Jones?

I wish the perks of my Master’s Program gave me access to another newspaper. I have the utmost respect for the Wall Street Journal but I don’t follow their columnists like I do Nicholas Kristof, David Brooks, Charles Blow or Maureen Dowd at the New York Times. The stock price issue is very minor in comparison to the fact that I’ve been reading the New York Times my whole life. I don’t read the Washington Post that much, but one of my best friends and I share an account whenever I really want to read something.

I shouldn’t complain too much. I am a teacher and a Master’s student. I compared the rates for both the student discount and educator discount. The student discount is $1 a week while the educator discount is $1.88 a week. It seems like I should use my student email rather than my work email to subscribe to such a cheap rate. But the point is these subscriptions are well within my realm of finances. I can easily pay them off. Not to mention I pay $50 a year for this platform here.

So why does it cause me so much pain when a newspaper paywall pops up? I love journalists. I respect journalists. I want journalists to get paid. I want a vibrant press that afflicts the comfortable and speaks truth to power. In another life, I would have become a journalist instead of a teacher (and I’m thinking about it post-retirement), so why does the idea of supporting journalism by paying for subscriptions bring so much pain?

According to Rob Howard at Quartz (I had to open this article on three different devices before I could bypass Quartz’s paywall), journalism paywalls popped up when journalism started getting competition from low-budget websites and papers. But the problem with paywalls as business models comes when there’s actually very serious news that should be widely available and free to the public. Howard uses the example of hurricanes and elections as news that should not be behind paywalls, and brilliantly explains the psychology behind why paywalls cause us so much pain:

“The paywall is inherently in conflict with journalism’s primary goal: to educate and inform the public about important issues.”

A lot of the time, it’s not the money that makes us hate the paywall so much, but the inconvenience. Anything that requires you to take out your credit card again and put in those 16 numbers, especially when you didn’t ask for it, causes an instinctual visceral reaction.

Paywalls are also just a teaser that annoys us more than incentives us to actually pay for a newspaper. We hit a paywall after a paragraph of interesting writing, where we want to read more. Sometimes, newspapers even hit us with two paragraphs before we get hit by a paywall. But then the paywall hits us like the worst of ads, giving us, in Howard’s words, “a strange mix of indignity and disgust.” And it’s not a good business strategy to have potential customers be absolutely disgusted before asking them for money.

If it’s just a topic I want to read about, I can find a million other pieces on the same topic on Google News. If it’s an individual author or independent writer, why don’t I just hit Substack so I can get their emails straight into my inbox? Or why don’t I just save myself some time and not read the news at all, and read the seven novels that have been on my reading list for months?

The paywall has come with the explosion of digital press

Print newspapers obviously didn’t have a paywall — they were either sent to you or not. You didn’t need to pay after reading three free pieces — you had to pay just to read one (or pick up the newspaper from a neighbor or friend who didn’t read it). It’s actually, according to Howard, a disservice to journalism and incentivizing “trendier news and faster news” instead of more rigorous reporting. These days, Howard says “80% of current-events news is interchangeable, regardless of your source.” And paywalls have encouraged newspapers to adopt more extreme and less nuanced opinions to give into readers’ beliefs and incentivize echo chambers.

It’s easy to be critical of newspapers for this trend. But this is the landscape and world of how digital media works. Newspapers have to survive on the Internet too.

Howard says the only way to build a more responsible paywall is to ask them to pay without giving the free samples — the selfish part of me isn’t sure that’s the best option either.

Paywalls these days are just a necessary part of the landscape and as annoying as they may be if we want society to have a robust, strong and free press, it’s time to stop looking for shortcuts (for me, at least). The effort of trying to find a friend with a New York Times subscription is not worth just forking over $4 a month to support journalism.

Trying to bypass newspaper paywalls takes far more effort, sometimes, than paying for the paywalls. I’ve tried it all — I’ve gone on incognito mode, tried to access the same articles on my phone, used different Google accounts, used different browsers (yes, I even downloaded Mozilla Firefox again). The truth is it’s just too much an inconvenience — the old adage that “you get what you pay for” applies to news unless proven otherwise, in my experience.

Photo by Rishabh Sharma on Unsplash

Originally published on Frame of Reference on June 5, 2021

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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