Free Content Undermines Democracy?

from the people-pay-you-for-this? dept

A journalism professor by the name of Tim Luckhurst is claiming that newspaper paywalls are needed to preserve democracy, and that free content online undermines democracy. We've heard this argument before, and it makes no more sense now than when it was first raised. The basic argument is that free content online isn't bringing in enough revenue to pay reporters, thus newspapers are going under and firing reporters. Thus, with fewer reporters, there are fewer people to watch the government and therefore corruption runs rampant. Or something like that.

Of course, there are so many fallacies wrapped up in this argument, it's difficult to even know where to start (though, one would have hoped that a journalism professor would have done the decent thing and checked into these things a bit more carefully before writing a silly opinion piece based on a variety of myths):
  • Newspapers need readers to pay to survive. Not true. Not even close to true. First, newspapers have almost never made money from subscription fees or newsstand purchases. Those fees rarely even covered the cost of the newsprint and delivery. Newspapers have always made their money on advertising and classifieds (a form of advertising).
  • Free content online is why newspapers are in trouble. Again, not true. In most cases, the publications that are in trouble are in that position because they took out tremendous amounts of debt. Most newspapers are actually still profitable on an operational basis, but aren't making enough to repay the debt. The problem was poor management thinking in believing that leveraging their futures to ridiculous levels made sense.
  • Without old school newspapers, government corruption is not well covered. This one remains to be seen, but there is growing evidence that it, too, is not true. The power of the internet has made it such that many more people can hold our governments accountable by gaining a voice and speaking out against corruption or corruptive influences. It's not fixing the problem entirely, but then again, neither did newspapers. The fact is that it's much easier now to call attention to corruption, and there are more and more forums to help with that -- such as Wikileaks, combined with the ability to self publish or more easily contact those with a larger audience.
  • Putting up a paywall will somehow fund more journalism. Again, remains to be seen, but there's little evidence to support this claim. There are numerous competing offerings providing news in the marketplace today. There is little indication that enough people are interested in paying directly for news to the level it would take to support news operations. Combine that with the decrease in ad revenue (the real source of revenue for most news organizations) from cutting off a large chunk of an audience, and it seems likely that these paywalls will actually serve to decrease overall revenue over the long term rather than increase it. It's not clear how that helps anyone.
On the whole, if one were to grade this professor's analysis, you'd have to give him a failing grade for basing an argument on outright falsehoods and unsupported statements.

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  1. icon
    Matthew Cruse (profile), 2 Dec 2009 @ 8:55am

    Re: AC

    Sure, that may be true, that subsriptions and subscription counts represnt "assured sales". But there is a way to count that without having a paywall. Click through rates, e-mail subscriptions, registered commenters (Techdirt Insiders), anonymous comments per story etc. (Full Disclosure: I subscribe to techdirt daily e-mail, click through on appropriate adds (almost none since I'm not in the IT industry) and I am a registered commenter.) All of the comments that Mike made are accurate. He never said that subscription numbers weren't important, he said that the income from the subscriptions were not how newspapers made money. I almost never read a physical newspaper any more. I get almost all of my news online. And it is not because of the cost of a newspaper, it's because of convenience. When I had a subscription, I would find that the newspaper would sit unread on the counter while I read all the same stories online, therefore, why have the dang paper?

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