As I work on getfavor.it, I’ve been spending more and more time navigating online paywalls, Adblock prompts, and figuring out how to make the reading experience of news on the internet better for users, and last weekend it occurred to me that online news paywalls are actually (albeit unintentionally) part of the fake news problem.
What got me thinking about this was the realization that the proliferation of ‘fake news’ seemed to coincide with the rise in new sites charging users to read more than a certain number of articles a week (without ignoring the role of Social Media in the fake news business of course). In my capacity as the sole hamster behind the wheel writing code for getfavor.it, I spend a lot of time online reading articles, or trying to figure out how best to make it easier for my prospective users (I haven’t launched yet) to save/bookmark an article online. Last week, it seemed that every other news site I happened on had a paywall, or a prompt about a paywall. What made this even more jarring is that I use Adblock (a piece of software that block the ads on most sites from loading), so 30–40% of the time I’d land on a website to read an article that my buddies were having a heated debate about, I’d get a prompt to either disable Adblock, add the site to the Adblock whitelist, or purchase a “reading pass” for $x.
I pay for a New York Times subscription, which has now become my main source of news (not coincidentally, I imagine), but this month I hit my Economist limit early, so I can’t read any of the articles they send me in their daily email digest till the cycle resets at the end of this week. I signed up for a Wall Street Journal trial subscription and forgot to cancel it, before realizing they were charging me $40/month for it, at which point I immediately shut down the subscription (not without Roger, a cheerful Account rep sweetly and smoothly offering me the same deal for $15/month … I was tempted, I enjoy the WSJ to be quite honest). In doing some competitive research on Techcrunch, every article I read would pop up a prompt to subscribe to their premium service because of my Adblock, so the site is essentially useless to me now.
My reaction 50% of the time I hit a Paywall or Adblock modal is to just close out of the site, but if the article teaser is intriguing enough or the argument in my whatsapp/facebook groups is heated enough, I’ll open up Safari or firefox to read the article, but after a couple of articles (and trying to trick the paywall with incognito/private browsing mode), I hit a paywall and can go no further till it resets. At that point if I’m EXTRA motivated, I might google the headline and see if some other site has published a similar article so I might read it, but in the case of an article that’s exclusive to the site, I’m out of luck.
What’s even more jarring is the number of times I’ll post a NY Times/WSJ article somewhere, forgetting I have a subscription and someone will message me or comment to the effect of
“Hey, the article is behind a paywall, can you post the text of the article please?”
What became clear to me, over the weekend is that, there is now a real cost to the user associated with acquiring accurate, insightful, and well produced news. Just like the old days, when you had to buy a newspaper to stay up to date on current affairs. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that there is now serious competition to Real news. Free, less reliable news sources and aggregators, that can push articles into a facebook Newstream that go viral in a matter of seconds whether they are completely true, or properly researched or not. However the thirst for actual news from the public hasn’t actually gone away (as evidenced by the number of people that try to beat paywalls)
Anecdotally (I did a cursory check, so don’t hold me to this), most of these sites are free and have no paywalls, but even worse than that, is the fact that you don’t even need a news site to go viral, you can just make a Facebook post or tweet something, and it can become real news even if it is totally wrong. So its no wonder that ‘fake news’ is on an explosive growth trajectory, Real news is being shepherded away behind walled gardens, while fake news, tailored to your personal wants and needs has become easier to produce, promote and proliferate.
Not only is reliable news harder to acquire, we’re actually moving towards a situation where there will be haves and have-nots in the very critical area of having basic accurate information about what is going on in the world. A minimum wage worker doesn’t have $9/month to spare on a NY Times subscription, and definitely not $40/month for the Wall Street Journal, so should we surprised when folks get their news from facebook, text messages, whatsapp groups or inaccurate tweets by self-interested parties that they share a world view with?
To be completely clear, I’m not blaming Newspapers for trying to make an honest buck, the New York times experiment with paywalls showed a business model exists that seems to have helped stem the massive bleeding in the Newspaper industry. Unfortunately it turns out that, as with everything else, there have been knock-on effects to the paywall era of news that we haven’t seriously thought about.
How deep does the rabbit hole go?
I personally, think that the fake news trend will only continue and probably accelerate in the near future, driven by the jet fuel that is social media, but I do think it’s time for us to seriously contemplate if the increasing scarcity of authoritative, accurate and reliable news is a a real problem (I’m just one hamster on a wheel with an opinion on the internet after all), and start to see if anything can be done about it.
PS: A few days after publishing this article, Fortune announced that they’d be moving all their online properties behind a paywall as well