Paywalls and the Dream of Open Web

The advent of internet has disrupted the business model of media publications, especially in the West. At a time when print subscribers are declining continuously (the story is different for India), the revenues from digital operations have been way less than compensatory. This has forced many mainstream publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and Time Magazine to erect paywalls around their content. And this is just a start: many more publications are expected to follow suit.

But what does this mean to the dream of “open web”? If we reach a stage where every media publication makes the access to its website subscription-based, it will greatly limit the readers’ options.You cannot expect an average reader to subscribe to more than two-three publications at a time. Paywalls are also antagonistic to the concepts of content exploration and content curation.

The reason many of us have come to love the web is the way it lets us discover and explore content. Web is like a library hosting all the newspapers, magazines and journals in the world. Once you are inside this library, nothing is out of your reach. You can even overcome the language barrier with the help of services like Google Translate (which is available for more than 70 languages in the world, including a few Indian ones). But in the world of paywalls, each publication will become a separate library with a separate membership fee, thus limiting the access greatly.

Internet has fundamentally changed the way we consume information. I no more have a single publication as a favourite source of news/opinion. Instead, I go to Twitter to keep a tab on breaking news and also to find interesting articles. Invariably I stumble upon multiple media sites from around the world.

Social media has become one of the major sources of traffic to media sites. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have enabled every Tom, Dick and Harry to become a content curator. (For the best example of content curation in the world, which will keep you glued for hours on end, check this project called Brain Pickings.) People read articles and share the most interesting ones on their social media profiles. Hyperlinks are another major content discovery tool. Hyperlinks make it a fascinating experience to traverse the labyrinth that the web is. There have been instances when I have kept reading for hours just by jumping from one hyperlinked article to another.

Content curation and content exploration are realizable features only if the content is free. If readers are asked to take up a subscription every time they visit a site, they will rather stay away. An average reader (the one who goes beyond breaking news and headlines) visits hundreds of media sites in any given month, sometimes decidedly but most of the times by happenstance. Many a times we visit a certain site only for a single article (maybe because someone has shared the link in our Facebook news feed) and never see the site again. Paywalls will make such chance discoveries impossible. Paywalls threaten the very open nature of the web.

At a time when all the mainstream Western media publications are erecting paywalls, a major media house, though, stands apart — ie the iconic British newspaper, Guardian. Guardian has taken an exactly opposite stance. It is not only advocating open content, but also open journalism. Guardian wants to involve readers in the reporting process itself, through crowdsourcing and the use of social media. It’s policy statement about open journalism reads:

We believe the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better. Our independent journalism holds power to account across the globe and brings information that’s suppressed into the public domain. This openness allows us to provide our readers with the broadest possible perspective: the whole picture.

But many point to the fact that Guardian is making losses. It cannot be denied that web raises serious questions about sustainability of media publications. It is out of desperation, and not greed, that media houses have resorted to paywalls. It’s a Catch 22 situation, truly. On the one hand paywalls threaten the open nature of the web (and do not seem like a sustainable revenue source either, at least in the current scenario), on the other hand publications are clueless as to how to raise the money to practice quality journalism.

One thought on “Paywalls and the Dream of Open Web

  1. This is like the Sony/ Kodak conundrum. They could not survive in a changing environment because they did not want to change themselves. Those publications will survive who understand that the only solution is to stop being stuck in 20 years ago.

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