Thursday, March 28, 2013

Last Stand: Newspapers, Paywalls and George Orwell

Newspaper Paywall- Nomdic Politics
Last year saw many in the beleaguered newspaper industry finally committing to restrict general online access to both their current editions to their archives behind so-called paywalls. 
 Even after years of declining revenues, there were plenty of concerns about the whole idea. From now on, if anybody wishes to read news content of these newspapers will have to become a subscriber. That includes not merely current news but the archives as well.

But can paywalls really save the print media or will it just squeeze the last drop of advertising dollar from another dying industry? Although the jury is still out on that, a more critical question might be: How will the paywall business model change journalism, or the freedom of information? What are the long term consequences for democracy when essential information is available only to people who can afford to view it?

1984 and Beyond
In the closing pages of Orwell’s novel “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” the imagined authoritarian regime which has come to dominate the West is in the process of converting all of the historical archives into the governmentally-approved language NewSpeak. The government, as the protagonist learned, was not above re-writing the record to suit its needs. In fact, all information was continually in flux. Yesterday's fact could reverse itself in the middle of a public speech and become today’s lie. With no record apart from the government's, anything could be possible. 
In the book, the leader of the party brags that if the party wished it could wipe an individual’s entire existence out of history altogether as if they had never lived at all. There would be no tangible proof of the past and nobody would dare to dispute the newest reality. 

In the real world, the year 1984 came and went and all of the dark warnings in Orwell’s book seemed at that time to be vastly overblown. True, maybe such things occurred in places like North Korea, or Iran or in the Soviet Union, critics of a dystopian future assured us, but not in the West, not in the United States.

In truth, we were told, the opposite of 1984 was happening. Only two years before, TIME magazine gave the Man of the Year Award to.. The Computer. The Digital Age had quietly begun and at that time, only a few visionaries had any clue where it was going to lead. I mean, the computer at that time was great for archiving or as an expensive word- processor- so what? Where's the revolution? 

It wasn't until the birth of the Internet that things really took off. This Internet thing, we were told, would actually connect one computer to another so they could communicate and share data with one another. Even with all those clues right under our noses, nobody quite understood the significance of "going digital." Least of all the executives in boardrooms busy with mergers. 

In the decades that followed, there really was a revolution about how information was created, disseminated, stored and accessed. Suddenly, information on any topic could be found online. The Net was quickly becoming the largest marketplace and the largest library in the history of humankind. And with the rise of blogging and citizen journalists, journalism was becoming a non-professional profession. The only problem was that it wasn't so easy to make any money from this revolution. 

Futurists noted that the disturbing predictions of the Orwellian control of history were completely wrong. In the digital age nobody could control the flow of information. Information was free. It was everywhere and belonged to everybody. 

Furthermore, the adversarial role of the press was powerful enough to keep government in check. Look at the Iran-Contra scandal, they said. The balance of power, between the open press and the potentially autocratic government had banished the fears the Orwell's dismal future. Governments could be tamed by a combination of the free press and technology. 

However, perhaps these gloomy prognosticators searching for Orwellian traces were just looking in the wrong direction.

The Clash of Old and New Media
The digital age, which allowed free access and nearly instantaneous traffic of once-restricted material, proved to be a disaster for many industries, like the film and music industries. In a scramble to survive, executives were forced to revive (and revise) outdated copyright laws to protect their business model. Using as much political pressure as lobbying could muster, they were able to draft restrictive legislation instead of embracing innovation. It has been, unfortunately for them, a losing battle. Only those companies willing to adapt (as best as they could) would escape extinction. 

Just as the technological revolution had begun, another revolution was also taking place. In the 1980s, in media like television and newspapers, mergers and corporate takeovers were increasingly common. Deregulation had spurred the birth of the true corporate media empire.
Large publishers of big newspapers targeted smaller competitive newspapers for takeovers, hoping to have total domination in their towns or cities.
Number of corporation that control US media
The merging and buyout trend continued into the 1990s with dramatic results. In 1993 there were 50 media corporations that controlled the majority of newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations. However, by the year 2003, that number had shrunk to a mere five. 

This consolidation might have been great for the moguls but it raised serious concerns about, among other things, the diversity of viewpoints. Was it really wise to put such a valuable public utility as the press into the hands of so few? Many speculated at the deleterious effects of this kind of corporate consolidation.

Declining Newspaper Ad revenue
By the turn of the last century, newspapers and magazines, some old and venerated names, were definitely feeling the digital pinch, so to speak. Of course, it was inevitable that the digital age should undermine the foundations of the past. That’s what revolutions do.

Print newspaper advertising revenue peaked around 2000 and, as more and more people became connected online, revenue began dry up at an alarming speed. Advertising- the life-blood of every newspaper- simply disappeared. By 2010, some analysts were talking about the death of newspapers altogether.The Internet was clearly destroying the print medium.

Today, it seems as if newspapers are making their last stand against the digital age. That last stand is coming in the form of information restriction, namely, paywalls.

According to The State of the Media 2013, an annual report on American journalism, digital pay plans, (that’s a fancy name for restricting access to paying readership through the use of paywall) are being adopted at 450 of the country’s 1,380 dailies and appear to be working not just at The New York Times but also at small and mid-sized papers.

Another 100 papers are expected to adopt similar models over the course of this year. Versions of the popular “metered model” allow papers to keep most traffic from search or social media recommendations. Gannet, Lee Newspapers and the New York Times have all incorporated a digital only subscription into their circulation options. Information- at least reliable sourced information supplied by a reputable press will no longer be free. 

When The Seattle Times decided this year to implement its own paywall, one local critic made this forecast:
Oh, the number of paid subscriptions will bump up at first, but there will be fewer actual readers. And not only will the paper's audience be smaller, it will be more homogenous: Older, wealthier, older. With each successive generation, fewer young people are getting into the habit of reading daily newspapers, especially in print.
Young people will simply get out of the habit of reading newspapers in favor of the free online press. And they won't be coming back. 
The very concept of restricting content in a profession that supposedly believes in exposure is paradoxical. What is the point of exposing the truth and holding officials accountable, when the information that exposed them is restricted. Isn't this substituting one Big Brother for another? Why is the public obliged to trust the corporate-owned media to provide and protect information any more than the government? At least, government officials can be forced out of office. That may not be true in the world of big business.

The fact that the newspaper industry would even consider paywalls demonstrates the problem with the whole concept of corporate journalism.

When Truth Becomes a Commodity
[Paywalls] set up artificial barriers to the diffusion of information, and to the healthy dialectic such accessibility fosters. They reject and suppress the productivity gains offered by new media technologies. Whatever additional revenue some newspapers might individually realize, at the macro level paywalls destroy value.
Who will actually pay? As one average consumer wrote about the use of paywalls:
I am overwhelmed everyday on the internet with information, I can’t imagine paying for more, there is only 24 hours in a day, but still interesting what these companies are compelled to do to stay employed. It sounds like a fight for survival.
That's exactly what it is. However there are doubts whether all of this scrambling comes too little, too late. Even in the short term, the paywall decision seems to have done little to halt the decline in the newspaper industry. 

Papers across the country have been forced to reduce newsroom staff or have chosen to reduce the number of editions per week. Many newspapers have begun taking costing cutting measures - always a sign of desperation in the corporate world- like abandoning the grand headquarter buildings for smaller and more modest offices. As corporate boardrooms contemplate the move to paywall business model, many analysts are predicting that with the advent of paywall restrictions, the once thriving industry is effectively cutting its own wrists. 

While any practical businessman can understand that something needed to be done if the print medium was to survive, many question the wisdom of this particular move. On the other hand, what happens to what’s left of real journalism when newspapers go extinct? Are we prepared to live in a world with no investigative journalism? Experience in the Iraq war has shown pretty conclusively that cable television news cannot be trusted to report without some kind of agenda.

In hindsight, the problems began in the 1980s when regulations on media ownership and possible monopolies were lifted, allowing the birth of media empires. Once again, although they are too big to be allowed to fail, the truth is the industry- like the financial industry- is not simply functioning,  either as a profit-making business nor as a indispensable constitutionally-protected public service.
Note that no other private industry was given such a stamp of approval by the founding fathers but they did specify a "free" press. However, as journalist A. J. Liebling, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
But, besides the fact that it probably will hasten the extinction of the industry, there is yet another problem with the paywall model.

Lack of Permanance and The Historical Record
One of the lesser features of an old newspaper - besides lining bird cages- is to keep a physical historical record of events in the past. Whether accurate or not in the specifics, the historical record of ink could not be altered once the print was made and disseminated to the public. 
In a word, printing information was the stamp of realty or at least, a sense of permanence
In the digital world that kind of permanent record doesn't exist.
As Simon Waldman, Director of Digital Publishing, The Guardian (UK), noted back in 2005
Permanence means understanding that when you put something on the Web it should be there for ever: ideally in the same place for perpetuity. It means that if I link to it now, someone else can follow that link in two days, two weeks or two years' time.
The digital medium's dynamism is both its greatest strength and its biggest drawback.Too often when one is attempting to trace a source through a link in an online article, that link is dead. When all archives become privatized, links in past articles will suddenly be out of reach and therefore impossible to verify. Moreover all citizen journalists, unable to afford subscriptions to all archives will be shut out. 
But the effects are not just for researchers. Privatizing archives will affect everybody. 

When the details of history, the events and who was connected to them, become private information, then every citizen becomes a little more ignorant of what is actually happening in the present day. Lies become much easier to pass on as truth. Relationships become much easier to hide and forget.

 As one source notes:
Every newspaper of any quality has published hundreds of articles that readers can find nowhere else and which bloggers, among others, would surely cite and point to as a vital part of the permanent record of a community.

In the past, an old newspaper could be filed away at your local library and consulted when necessary. It provided a valuable resource to the curious, to citizen journalists, to freelance authors and to the students of history. Digital archives are kept behind paywalls, and newspaper owners will be charging for a ogle from now on. 

Even without a pay-for view history, we see this trend. The line between facts and opinions, between op-ed and news reporting constantly being blurred. People are becoming increasingly more ignorant of events that occurred not 30 years ago but events from the past presidential administration. It allows people like Paul Ryan to claim he didn't support the sequester when only a year ago, the record shows he did. It allows people like Dick Cheney to fabricate the Bush administration’s the most elemental facts about the Iraq invasion. (And nobody understood the value of restricting access to documentary evidence better than Cheney.) 

Incidentally it may be no mere coincidence that one of the leaders in the paywall movement is none other than Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, parent company of Fox News. Pointing the declines in revenues, Murdoch has been successful at persuading other news organizations to join him. (Perhaps it is more than just a business decision when you look at how news has been consistently manufactured in Murdoch-owned Fox News.) 

When all newspaper archives are less accessible to the majority of people, then that problem will grow even worse. There will be even less certainty about what actually happened last year, what was said and what answer was given to what question. History will become private property. 

With the maturation of the digital age, the real danger is that the archived past can be more easily controlled by corporations, owned by those with a vested stake in keeping things perfectly under wraps. Admittedly it was always true to some extent but today it will be much easier. 
It isn't just a theoretical problem. Concerns arose in 2006 when Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal- one of the first newspapers to install a "hard" paywall- that the buyout would adversely affect the quality of journalism. Some believe those fears have been realized. on subjects like climate change and healthcare reform
People should be asking: Is this really the kind of person we want to control our ability to research the past? 

And this brings us back to Orwell. In the book the true philosophy of the NewSpeak is revealed to the protagonist of the book, Winston Smith. The leader informs him:
He who controls the past, controls the present. And he who controls the present, controls the future.
Historical record belongs to all of us. It may need to be guarded not for commercial reasons, not as a source of revenue, but as a public resource. open to all.     

Here's an interesting and useful info-graphic about the paywall trend. (Click to enlarge.)