Michael Luo at the New Yorker: “The shift to paywalls has been a boon for quality journalism. Instead of chasing trends on search engines and social media, subscription-based publications can focus on producing journalism worth paying for, which has meant investments in original reporting of all kinds. A small club of élite publications has now found a sustainable way to support its journalism, through readers instead of advertisers. The Times and the Post, in particular, have thrived in the Trump era. So have subscription-driven startups, such as The Information, which covers the tech industry and charges three hundred and ninety-nine dollars a year. Meanwhile, many of the free-to-read outlets still dependent on ad revenue—including former darlings of the digital-media revolution, such as BuzzFeed, Vice, HuffPost, Mic, Mashable, and the titles under Vox Media—have labored to find viable business models.
Many of these companies attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding, and built sizable newsrooms. Even so, they’ve struggled to succeed as businesses, in part because Google and Facebook take in the bulk of the revenue derived from digital advertising. Some sites have been forced to shutter; others have slashed their staffs and scaled back their journalistic ambitions. There are free digital news sites that continue to attract outsized audiences: CNN and Fox News, for instance, each draw well over a hundred million visitors a month. But the news on these sites tends to be commodified. Velocity is the priority, not complexity and depth.
A robust, independent press is widely understood to be an essential part of a functioning democracy. It helps keep citizens informed; it also serves as a bulwark against the rumors, half-truths, and propaganda that are rife on digital platforms. It’s a problem, therefore, when the majority of the highest-quality journalism is behind a paywall. In recent weeks, recognizing the value of timely, fact-based news during a pandemic, the Times, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other publications—including The New Yorker—have lowered their paywalls for portions of their coronavirus coverage. But it’s unclear how long publishers will stay committed to keeping their paywalls down, as the state of emergency stretches on. The coronavirus crisis promises to engulf every aspect of society, leading to widespread economic dislocations and social disruptions that will test our political processes and institutions in ways far beyond the immediate public-health threat. With the misinformation emanating from the Trump White House, the need for reliable, widely-accessible information and facts is more urgent than ever. Yet the economic shutdown created by the spread of covid-19 promises to decimate advertising revenue, which could doom more digital news outlets and local newspapers.
It’s easy to underestimate the information imbalance in American society. After all, “information” has never felt more easily available. A few keyboard strokes on an Internet search engine instantly connects us to unlimited digital content. On Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms, people who might not be intentionally looking for news encounter it, anyway. And yet the apparent ubiquity of news and information is misleading. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly one in five American newspapers closed; in that time, print newsrooms have shed nearly half of their employees. Digital-native publishers employ just a fraction of the diminished number of journalists who still remain at legacy outlets, and employment in broadcast-TV newsrooms trails that of newspapers. On some level, news is a product manufactured by journalists. Fewer journalists means less news. The tributaries that feed the river of information have been drying up. There are a few mountain springs of quality journalism; most sit behind a paywall.
A report released last year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism maps the divide that is emerging among news readers. The proportion of people in the United States who pay for online news remains small: just sixteen per cent. Those readers tend to be wealthier, and are more likely to have college degrees; they are also significantly more likely to find news trustworthy. Disparities in the level of trust that people have in their news diets, the data suggests, are likely driven by the quality of the news they are consuming….(More)”.