Online Subscription Models Are An Assault On Literacy

Media profits may spell society-altering deficits in knowledge

by Jason Falls |

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.


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).