Paywalls to Access News Pose a Dangerous Problem

Opinion by Jesse Hsieh.

Introduction


Since the decline of daily newspapers, many news companies have moved to the digital domain. While doing so, these same companies introduced digital subscriptions for their readers to access some, if not all, aspects of their journalistic services. These paywalls pose a problem: if society needs to pay to access reputable sources for information, what happens to the integrity of our democracy when individuals are unwilling to pay that price?


The integrity of our democracy relies on the electorate making voting decisions based on facts and truth. A major issue that continues to undermine this crucial aspect of democracy is the phenomenon of fake news. Described as “fabricated information that is patently false,” fake news is meant to purposefully mislead and deliberately defraud readers [1].


Fake news is not a new concept; misleading and false stories have been around since news first began to circulate [2]. However, through technological advancements and social media, fake news has become more prominent in society than ever [3]. But how do news paywalls play into all this?


The Cost of Accessing the News


According to a study by the American Press Institute, out of 100 different companies, the median price of digital subscriptions at US newspapers was $10 USD per month [4]. In Canada, the leading news subscriptions vary, with:


  1. The Toronto Star costing $1.50 CAD per week,

  2. The Globe and Mail costing $1.99 CAD per week for the first 6 months, then $6.99 CAD per week after that, and

  3. Postmedia Network Key Brands (National Post, the Vancouver Sun, the Montréal Gazette) costing $9.95 CAD per month for each individual newspaper [5].


By comparison, websites known for peddling fake news are free to access without a digital subscription. Many of these fake news sites have specific purposes: some are created to generate traffic to increase their ad revenue, while others want to reinforce political beliefs or agendas [6]. Sometimes fake news can be easy to spot, but, in many cases, websites try extremely hard to disguise their fraudulent content as objective journalism. Fake news stories often have a headline meant to serve as click-bait, with the content in the article either extremely subjective and one-sided without much evidence or legitimate sources to back up their arguments [7].


Paying the Price of Cognitive Laziness


These fake news websites spend tons of effort to fool readers, and oftentimes they succeed. One of the main reasons why many individuals fall for fake news is “cognitive laziness”: news and information is often merely skimmed through and glanced at on social media [8]. If paywalls are continuously implemented on news sources that are deemed objectively reputable, it serves as a possible incentive for individuals to seek cheaper options of information— which could lead to readers not taking the time to check on the accuracy and legitimacy of what they are reading and fall for fake news.


The unfortunate truth is that most media companies are profit-seeking businesses, so it is not feasible for news outlets to disable their paywalls. Even if companies were to disable their subscriptions in favour of an advertisement-based model, it comes at the cost of media companies being influenced by the organizations that fund them. The problem then becomes potential conflicts of interest. So what’s the solution?


Breaking Down the Paywall


The solution needs to come from creating more policies that focus on providing increased exposure of reputable and accurate journalism to the individuals who cannot afford it. Journalism reports on all facets of life; it’s a form of education that has universal value outside of academic forums. If citizens are not able to access accurate information on a daily basis due to barriers such as paywalls, and are instead consistently exposed to a large amount of falsely reported data and misleading content, they are at risk of falling prey to fake news [9].


The issue with fake news and how paywalls and digital subscriptions contribute to that problem is not that these inaccurate sources will mislead more and more individuals; that’s bound to continue to happen in a society that values free speech. We will all have our biases and perspectives, and are most likely to seek out sources that align with our values.


No, the issue is that more and more individuals will be pushed to the brink of no return: that the more exposure they have to free misleading information, the more they will be trapped by the inaccuracies of these sources. As paywalls and other barriers prevent them from seeking out more accurate information, what opportunities would they have to be exposed to the truth? If the only sources of information they have are fake, what would change their opinions? What would encourage themselves to ask: “Is what I’ve been told the full truth?”


In a democracy where its citizens vote based on the information at hand, fairness would mean working towards providing the most accurate information for all to read. Paywalls, digital subscriptions, and other barriers prevent such access, thus disincentivize individuals to seek out accurate, objective, and reputable sources of news.


The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) provides services that are universally accessible and funded by taxpayer money. The CBC model provides access to accurate news without the paywall. Government funded news sources are a potential solution to fight against fake news sites, but there needs to be a tremendous amount of transparency and accountability in order to prevent issues such as bias [10].


Moving forward, this fight against fake news should not be targeted towards individuals who can afford to pay for accurate information yet still feign ignorance. Instead, focus needs to be towards individuals who cannot afford it and thus know of nothing else but the misleading information that they have been exposed to. Further policies need to help dismantle paywalls for people to access information that serves not to mislead them or defraud them of truth.

  1. Molina, Maria D., S. Shyam Sundar, Thai Le, and Dongwon Lee. 2021. “‘Fake News’ Is Not Simply False Information: A Concept Explication and Taxonomy of Online Content.” American Behavioral Scientist 65, no. 2: 180–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764219878224.

  2. Soll, Jacob. 2016. "The Long and Brutal History of Fake News." POLITICO Magazine. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-21453 5.

  3. Wendling, Mike. 2018. "The (almost) complete history of 'fake news'." BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-42724320.

  4. Cook, Tracy M. 2018. "How Much U.S. Newspapers Charge for Digital Subscriptions." American Press Institute. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/digital-subscription-pricing/.

  5. Arrive. 2020. "Top Paid News Subscriptions in Canada." Arrive. https://arrivein.com/daily-life-in-canada/top-paid-news-subscriptions-in-canada/.

  6. PolitiFact Staff. 2017. "PolitiFact's Guide to Fake News Websites and What They Peddle." PolitiFact. https://www.politifact.com/article/2017/apr/20/politifacts-guide-fake-news-websites-and what-they/.

  7. Wallach, Omri. 2021. "How To Spot Fake News." Visual Capitalist. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/how-to-spot-fake-news/; Toronto Public Library. "How to Spot Fake News." Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/spotfakenews/.

  8. Pennycook, Gordon, and David Rand. 2019. "Why Do People Fall for Fake News?" The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/fake-news.html.

  9. Weir, Kirsten. 2020. "Why We Fall for Fake News: Hijacked Thinking or Laziness?" American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2020/02/fake-news.

  10. Rusnell, Charles. 2020. "Federal Money for Struggling Newspapers Coming Soon, Minister Says." CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-failing-newspapers-covid19-help-1.5544554.