Online Subscription Models Are An Assault On Literacy

by · January 7, 201320 comments

If you don’t know the newspaper business is broken by now, I’m sorry about your decade-old coma. No, I’m not one to proclaim print media to be dead. But we are certainly planted squarely in the midst of a massive shift in how news is disseminated, who receives it and how reliable it is.

I fear that more and more newspapers and other online versions of trusted media outlets moving to paid subscription models is ultimately an assault on literacy. As you may know, I serve on the board of directors for the National Center for Family Literacy. This subject is close to my heart. I don’t speak for the NCFL here, only offer my own opinions, but I don’t come to this conclusion lightly.

Forcing the general population to pay for news of the day content is turning them away from requisite knowledge for day-to-day economic, social, professional and personal success. And media outlets everywhere are clamoring to slap a “for less than the cost of a cup of coffee per day” paywall on that requisite knowledge.

Gating news prevents functional literacy in the populace.

Gating news prevents functional literacy in the populous.

So, Gannett (owner of over 80 daily newspapers including mine, The Courier-Journal), the New York Times, the Washington Post and others are inadvertently setting the United States up for a crippling void in the population’s basic ability and knowledge to function in our world.

Certainly, there will be cries of blasphemy here. “You couldn’t get the printed publication for free before the Internet! How can you make such claims?! “

Well, you could get the publication for free before. At your local library. The way paywalls and systems are set up for Internet-based, subscription services, there’s no free access to anyone. Passing that financial burden along to local libraries isn’t yet, but should soon be, criminal.

A person could also benefit from the knowledge of the local newspaper or magazine via pass-along reading. One person subscribes or buys, then leaves it at the barber shop or doctor’s office. Another picks it up. Broadcast media has always been free to passers by. You can hear the radio in department stores or see televisions in public lobbies and restaurants.

But on the Internet, these media outlets are building not just paywalls, but brick walls between ordinary citizens and critical, life-anchoring information.

Doomsday scenario? Perhaps. One would like to think there will always be a loophole for free content. I lamented last week that my local daily paper and its new, online subscription model, had lapsed on me. Its 30-day, free-access cookie expired on my various computers and devices and, thus, I couldn’t access the entirety of its site without first paying.

I’ve since learned that there are various loopholes … everyone gets 20 free stories a month … links from social networks don’t block you, etc. … but still. They’re blocking my consumption of the news to a degree. If I choose not, or can’t afford to pay the subscription fee, I’m going to be kept from content, some of which could be critical news I need to be successful in life. (And to avoid the lamentations of the anal retentive, I use the pronoun “I” to apply generally to anyone, including the poor, homeless, etc., not just me — Jason Falls.)

Don’t misunderstand! I would never argue that journalism and journalists are not worth paying for. It takes salaries, benefits, resources, supplies, travel and the like to fund someone to create the content that is news for these outlets. In the past, it has always been advertising — and perhaps some degree of subscription-based or audience purchase — that has paid for the content. But that model then and now is broken. Something new needs to happen.

But that something new should not prevent the young, the old; the rich, the poor; the left, the right; the educated and the not from accessing the most precious commodity on Earth: Knowledge.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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  • Sean Wood

    This is something I never considered as a literate subscriber to my local newspaper. The San Antonio Express-News has yet to go to a paywall, but they’re probably waiting for their parent, Hearst to roll it out systemwide.
    What’s more disturbing to me – and probably even more paranoid on my part – is the possibility that certain news outlets will provide their content for free in an effort to influence the public. We’ve seen the general population gravitating toward news sources they trust and respect as well as those that share similar views. This eliminates the need for critical thinking.
    As a bleeding heart liberal, I don’t question the coverage of NPR because I trust them. I question EVERYTHING that comes out of FOX, but that’s who I am.
    As a former journalist who saw margins go from 30 percent to nothing, it’s hard to see the business go the way its gone. Something needs to change, but it won’t until the old-time newsosaurs are out of the editors’ suites.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good point Sean. I think Rich hit it on the head in another comment — that news outlets are often working to prove a subscriber’s point of view is right — appealing to one side or the other of certain issues. That’s a separate issue, of course, but still … the general public good is not done by cordoning off the major news outlets of a nation, region, state or city.

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    Jason, 

    I’m not sure if I would go as far to say it is an assault on literacy, but it is bad business that ignores the basic principle that news wants to be mostly free (and advertising supported). Subscribers, especially for magazines, has always been more about proving circulation as opposed to a true revenue stream. 

    But now days, tossing up pay walls is merely a test to see if the paper is producing any content worth price of admission. I’m not sure that it always is, especially as so many publications have turned toward affirmation media (working to prove their subscriber’s have a point of view that is right). There is a ton of content out there to take care of literacy, often with better balance or even (gasp) objective reporting. 

    Magazines tend to do it a little better, which is why we still sport three subscriptions (usually discounted to more than 80 percent) for print because the online versions don’t offer the same depth or aesthetic. At the same time, it seems those pubs are getting along fine with advertisers, proving their worth. 

    At the end of the day, I just as soon lament the closing of some because if they closed, then someone else would eventually fill the gap. It’s sort of the American way. Any business, and newspapers are business, that fails to evolve will eventually perish. And newspapers (more than most) seem hellbent on not figuring out the proper mix. 

    Best,
    Rich

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Hey Rich. While I’d agree there’s a ton of content out there to take care of literacy in the reading and writing sense, there’s also functional literacy we need to protect. Sure, it’s a bit Doomsdayish to assume, but let’s say all newspapers go online and paywall … that news is no longer financially viable to deliver for free or offline … where are the poor and disenfranchised then? Yeah, they can go read free websites, but where are they going to get the needed functional information delivered by daily news? What political issues mean for them … where road closures and traffic conditions may effect their travels … where public participation meetings are taking place for government issues … etc.

      • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

        There is an irony here in that I had this exact same discussion with a publisher. He took the exact opposite stance. How can we report this information if no one is willing to pay for it? 

        My answer to him was the same as you. Information will find a way with or without newspapers (or literacy for that matter). Fortunately, we live in a time that we can actually do something about it if someone is so inclined, much like they did just a few years ago before the news was ever published on the Internet.

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    IMO, newspapers have destroyed journalism. Once was once a desired, respected and valued job is now just a competition for the headline or a push for one’s political leanings.  I don’t believe newspapers are dead, I believe they’re committing suicide. Centralizing news where local experts are laid off, smothering their headlines with crap that hasn’t been fully vetted, and genuinely still trying to value themselves on eyeballs than the quality of their stories… it’s the rope around their own neck that’s tightening.  I don’t feel sorry since I worked there when 40% margins were shipped by the truckload back to McLean and local resources destroyed with no investment into online technologies.

    While I don’t care whether newspapers die, I pray to God that journalism lives on.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said Doug.

  • http://twitter.com/NCFLiteracy NCFL

    At the National Center for Family Literacy, our experience shows that at an increasing rate, families are turning to internet sites for information, particularly Hispanic-Latinos and other minorities. Research from the Pew Internet & Family Life Project tells us that 78% of adults use news sites on a daily basis, so it is not surprising that newspaper companies capitalize on this market by using pay barriers, though it may mean hindering families who cannot afford subscription fees.  How then, do newspapers create a viable business structure that doesn’t shut out their most vulnerable readers?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the chime-in NCFL folks! Hopefully, this discussion helps those families that cannot afford subscription fees.

  • http://twitter.com/CisionNavigator Gina Joseph

    interesting piece Jason! I’m just curious…when we are talking about online newspapers, are we talking local or national? As far as national news, it seems to me that even if someone were to open a Yahoo page or use Facebook they could find ways to read up on some big national issues, for free. If we are talking about local news, then yes, paywalls may hinder some from reading up on what is going on in their community. They could watch the local TV broadcasts, which is not helping literacy, but they would be gaining knowledge. Knowledge about news events and literacy are two different things. It will be interesting to see where paywalls are headed for sure. 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I’d still say we’re talking about both. More local, though. Yes, there will feasibly always be a portion of free content online, but clearly there could be a scenario down the road where printed content is no longer offered and online content is behind a paywall … then the general public is shut out (or at least those who can’t afford to pay). I just want to ensure we’re thinking this through.

  • Max_wojtylak

    The word is populace, not populous.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks. Fixed.

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  • http://www.findurmessage.com/ Jason Fontaine

    Local content has, is and always will be king. It should be free and flowing. Newspapers should identify with the people they are servicing – nobody does it better. Why have we all forgotten the power local classifieds produces? Ebay hasn’t. Facebook hasn’t. Craigslist hasn’t. Essentially – they are undercutting the profits of newspapers – but they can never provide for local content like papers. Every good newspaper lives and dies by their classifieds. By charging upfront costs – newspapers just made a dire, pathetically stupid mistake.

  • Reader

    The writer of this article misses a point – you still can read the NYT and other papers for free at the local library and other places in the country. The Washington Post, for example, gives papers to schools to help with reading, writing programs. 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      You can now, in 2013. But what about the world where libraries go all digital? Or print editions go away. Then, the pay for use model in the digital world crumbles. Certainly, publishers can develop free licenses to libraries. If that’s what this post inspires, we accomplished something.

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