The moral dilemma of paywalls: Why journalism will increasingly move into two different worlds

Selling journalism is no crime. In fact, only a few reporters and editors are ashamed of the fact that much of what they go great lengths to research, edit, and produce can only be consumed for money. After all, even bread is not for free. However, potential users who are stranded at paywalls at times make journalists feel like sleazy used car dealers. “It’s outrageous to make important information available to paying customers only,” complain those who are turned away at the login. Some even go further and argue, this promotes the division of society. Nikki Usher made this point in her book “News for the Rich, White, and Blue” that was published by Columbia University Press in 2021.

So, feeling attacked like this, who can blame journalists for getting a bit pathetic at times when talking about their craft? They prefer to elaborate about enlightenment and democracy, about holding power to account and citizen service, rather than about user loyalty and business models. The truth is, however, that without rapid progress in the commercialization of their offerings, many publishers will not survive.

This is why the journalism of the future will most likely move into either one of two worlds: On the one hand, there will be the increasingly sophisticated world of commercial journalism, in which highly professional providers offer their distinct audiences custom-fit, high-quality content, and user-friendly products that inspire them. On the other, there will be the world of public service or non-profit journalism, which steps in where the market fails. In this second world, journalism of the watchdog type will be created that only a few people are willing to pay for, or it will be about journalism that serves audiences which cannot or refuse to pay for news. Democracy needs both worlds. So, instead of fuelling today’s fights between public service and commercial media in tightening markets, it is about time for an honest discussion about this division of labour. Journalism would benefit from it — and so would citizens.

Journalism with too much wastage is not worthwhile

The highly professional world is currently emerging at a rapid pace. Most publishers have understood that only the sale of digital subscriptions, or at least memberships and other products, will secure their future. They are increasingly using experiments and meaningful data to figure out which customers or customer groups are most lucrative and how best to serve them. The audiences-first focus is at the core of media innovation programs like Table Stakes, in which close to 150 publishers in the US and Europe have already taken part (disclosure: the author of this is a coach in the Table Stakes Europe program run by WAN-IFRA). A lot of great journalism is created this way. But decisive for gaining and retaining subscribers is individual customers’ time spent on certain media. An extensive German data-gathering project called Drive has revealed that this was the key metric for selling digital subscriptions, not the clout of individual stories or subject areas that “convert well”. This summer, the industry organisation INMA named Drive, that bundles data from more than a dozen regional publishers and is led by German Press Agency dpa, the word’s “best news media innovation project”.

Focusing on “media time” though means that many publishers won’t be able to afford much journalism that doesn’t zero in on lucrative audiences. As resources become scarcer, newsrooms must inevitably ignore target groups that promise little commercial success. They are better off making those even happier who they already serve. This may be an audience with a certain level of education, political lineage or background. News organizations like the New York Times and the Financial Times have long understood this. Despite proclamations to the contrary, it is hardly worth many newsrooms’ while to reflect the diversity of society in its entirety. To the contrary, this can even alienate their core clientele. This is a sad truth and sounds reprehensible for journalism on a mission to safeguard democracy. But media companies with too little focus will sooner or later risk their existence.

This makes the role of public service media or non-profit offerings all the more important. With public service media at least in the traditional European concept, every citizen has to pay the license fee. That’s why the broadcasters have a mandate to reflect society in all its diversity and — this is important — meet all groups at eye-level. Unlike commercial publishers, they must remain impartial and use all formats necessary to reach users. Public service media has an obligation to go where the market of journalism fails. However, this also means that they have to make offerings for the mass market in order to not disappear into insignificance. When some commercial publishers argue public service broadcasters should retreat into niches, they don’t understand market dynamics. Such fear of competition always demonstrates a lack of confidence in their own offerings. To defy international platform or streaming monopolies, public service providers must cover the breadth. The commercial ones, on the other hand, should provide their audiences with so much added value that these are happy to pay for it. Ideally, both sides should cooperate on new technologies, innovative services, or education, rather than antagonize each other.

Where non-profit journalism comes into play

Complementary to public service news, there will also be a niche for non-profit news organisations, particularly in markets without strong public service media like the U.S.. They will establish themselves in areas where the market fails. The Texas Tribune, one of the most prominent non-profit U.S. media companies, for example, has focused on local political coverage. Readers typically don’t like to pay for that, their founder Evan Smith has argued. But when no one holds local politicians and administrators to account, it has been proven to hurt communities and their citizens. This is where funders who want to do good for society will be needed.

An open debate about the different journalism worlds would also enliven the discussion about trust in media. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford recently published a study based on discussion forums with media executives from the U.S., the U.K., Brazil and India. What emerged was that newsrooms target their trust-building efforts at very different audiences. For some, it’s about breadth. The aim is to win back those who have turned their backs on the public debate — an endeavour that is honourable, arduous and important, yet rarely successful commercially. For the rest, it’s about stable customer relationships and thus depth. Nevertheless, building trust as a means to an end is not reprehensible, on the contrary. It safeguards the plurality of the media landscape and consequently democracy.


This text was first published in a slightly different version in German on 8th December 2021.

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Alexandra Borchardt
Alexandra Borchardthttps://alexandraborchardt.com/
Dr. Alexandra Borchardt ist Journalistin mit mehr als 25 Jahren Berufspraxis, 15 davon in Führungspositionen (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Plan W). Sie ist Buchautorin, Beraterin und Medienforscherin mit besonderem Blick für Leadership und Digitalisierung.

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