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Newspaper paywalls: how did we get here?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Toronto Star set up a paywall this week for content that was formerly free.
The Toronto Star set up a paywall this week for content that was formerly free.

By Doug Nesbitt

This week the Toronto Star set up a paywall. Let us remind ourselves how this situation came to be.

In North America, and especially the US, the onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s led to the rapid financialization of the newsprint media by the early 1990s. This meant the old cohort of wealthy families and individuals owning newspapers gave way to ownership by publicly-traded media conglomerates. (The existence of that cohort is a story for another time).

The pressure to turn an increased profit on a quarterly basis transformed the industry. Prior to the 1980s, owners aimed for general financial stability, or even a relatively acceptable financial loss - the pay-off being a large-degree of political and cultural influence across society.

Publicly-traded corporate ownership of newsprint meant a shift away from long-term investments in the infrastructure of journalism (investigative work with legal and other forms of support, foreign bureaus, an army of beat reporters) and towards reducing these costs, reducing content, increasing workloads - which relates to the breaking and decline of print and media worker unions.

By the early 1990s, foreign bureaus were closing, beat journalists were disappearing along with entire beats (labour being the most significant), veteran journalists with well-developed sources were bought out, and noticeably less content was found in each issue.

Then the internet came along, totally undermining the advertising-based revenue model upon which the newspapers were based. But it's critical to understand that the cuts to newsroom staff and infrastructure *preceded* the internet explosion of the mid-90s (an explosion facilitated in great part by the release of Windows 95, and Internet Explorer shoved down your throat with monopoly power).

The cuts accelerated the new secular decline in advertising revenue, which began to take hold around the millenium.

Between the WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999 and the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, left critiques of the media reached new audiences as the anti-globalization movement (1999-2001) and anti-war movement (2002-2003) rose and fell.

The Iraq War in particular exposed the newspapers. The Bush administration played the spineless, boot-licking New York Times like a fiddle.

The mainstream media completely failed to do its job. The credibility of newspapers was in tatters. The truth of its complicity only really took hold in the public mind as the war became increasingly ugly and its justifications turned out to be bogus.

As the newspapers' corporate owners continued to undermine journalism through cuts and restructuring to offset declining ad revenues, some attempts were made to grapple with the new media environment.

One attempt to boost ad revenue was making online content free (while regularly increasing the costs of paper subs). This would mean large-scale online traffic, allowing the newspapers to begin making online advertising revenue. 

But this did not work. Newspapers no longer had the monopoly on text-based advertising for a specific geographic area. Advertiser dollars have far more places to go than just newspapers - they have the whole internet to play with. Why put an ad in a newspaper with a geographically limited and relatively small audience when you could put an ad on Youtube where millions flock to watch a monkey pee in his own mouth?

When the economic crisis of 2008 hit, newspapers around America started closing or became online newspapers. More cuts to staff and infrastructure were made. The online ad-revenue strategy continued to fail, while the imperative to increase profits on a quarterly basis never stopped.

In the past year, the Globe and Mail and now the Toronto Star have turned to paywalls to try to boost revenues through online subscriptions. Following the lead of the National Post, the Globe and Mail is now ending paper distribution to entire parts of the country, including sections of BC and all of Newfoundland.

All these changes smack of "too little, too late" for an industry with little imagination or understanding of the public, especially people who have grown up with the internet.

Let's be clear: the internet wasn't significant in regards to newspaper decline because readers suddenly became free-loading cheapskates and collapsed circulation in the process. It was the loss of advertising revenue that makes the internet significant, because the entire economic model of the newspaper is based around advertising revenue, not subscription revenue. 

The problem was exacerbated by North America's notorious problem of city-wide newspaper monopolies or duopolies which have persisted since the early decades of the 20th century. This only encouraged the further pursuit of a business model reliant upon a single form of revenue.

Loss of advertising revenue via the internet compounded the problems of journalism and infrastructure cuts which were already dissolving readership loyalties. Declining quality, loss of relevant local reporting, and the general shift in style from an orderly and packed black-and-white paper to the full-colour and chaotic, ad-jammed joke all took place before the internet boom.

But newspapers are significant because they are institutions of journalism, employing journalists and publishing their findings on a daily basis. Above all other mediums which involve journalism, newspapers are the most important and powerful in their real and potential effects on society.

This might change one day, but currently there is no prospect of a comparable alternative to newspaper-based journalism.

A self-governing democratic society requires journalism in order to understand the world it inhabits. As an individual or as a collective, you have to be informed if you're going to try and make the best possible decisions about the future, immediate and long-term. 

The death of our institutions of journalism, which have provided and continue to provide the vast majority of the news about the world we consume, is a real problem. We need these institutions, but clearly journalism can no longer be sustained by a for-profit advertising-based model, as the past century has proven.

We have to look at entirely new alternatives in which the work of journalism and institutions of journalism - whether newspapers, websites, tv news, radio, whatever - are sustained and expanded. Paying to read generally shitty online content is not going to do this.n

Doug Nesbitt is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

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1023 words


The degradation of Journalism


I enjoyed reading your article.  It highlights the sequence of the degradation of media.  The same can be said for many other industires.

Unfortunately, we have to work at  financial viability; that is the reality we face. I do not mind paying for my knoweldge.  Why should all my money be guzzled up by energy companies or telecommunications.



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