Paywalls: Keeping clickbait out, or quality content in?

Publishing Blog

It seems the natural course of action that publishers would consider implementing a paywall on their content.  After all, it acts as a means of revenue, while simultaneously suggesting to the audience that the content maintains some kind of standard. Andrea Carson suggests in her article, ‘Get out your wallets, paywalls are in’, that in mediating content this way, online publications are able to avoid falling back upon clickbait journalism to gain the attention of readers. In this way, I can agree that the paywall is positive; I myself would gladly pay a few dollars a month to evade any form of advertising, or content that detracts from what I set out to read.

Having said this, I can acknowledge that withholding information in an age so interconnected and interested in prolific content sharing can seem very counter-intuitive. Editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, discusses this issue in an interview with Steve Busfield, suggesting that “If you erect a universal pay wall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world.”

If the goal of journalism is to educate and inform, then where is the sense in barring off a large proportion of your audience? Andrea Carson quotes Katharine Viner, who suggests that “A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away.” By preventing this collaborative process, paywalls undermine the very thing that makes online journalism unique from its printed predecessor. They take license away from readers to freely pass comment and help in the mediation of content; the very quality this idea aims to preserve is inhibited by its exclusivity.

This particular issue is somewhat addressed by the ‘porous paywall’, which employs a ‘try before you buy’ strategy, however it still leaves many articles (often the most sought after) barred by financial necessity. At this early stage it is hard to say what the long term implications will be. Evidently the paywall has some bearing on the quality of content, but at the cost of some degree of audience participation and education.

References

[online] Busfield, Steve (2010) ‘Guardian editor hits back at paywalls’, The Guardian, January 25, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/guardian-editor-paywalls>

[online] Carson, Andrea (2013) ‘Get out your wallets, paywalls are in’, The Conversation, October 14, <https://theconversation.com/get-out-your-wallets-paywalls-are-in-18822>

[First published 18 August 2015]

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