I can’t stop thinking about this piece from Current Affairs, published in August, but highly relevant every day since.
The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!
Just seeing those two lists juxtaposed is scary. And with the misinformation running rampant around the election—as well as around every single thing that’s happened this year, like MASKS WORK—makes me a little queasy about my role as a journalist, storyteller, and in some ways, gatekeeper of the good stories.
It’s worth mentioning that the piece goes beyond just “NYT is good, Breitbart is bananas.” There is a domino effect here—once you start thinking about paywalled journalism, you start thinking about paywalled scientific and academic articles. Sure, you COULD get around the paywall of all of these sites by going incognito or using some fancy workaround, but the effort is something that no one wants to make.
Twitter has tried to make people stop for just one second and think about what they’re endorsing by over-emphasizing the quote tweet, and asking you (very passive-aggressively) if you’d “like to read the article first?” before retweeting its message. Okay, that could help maybe 5 percent of readers. But the bulk have by now learned that you can just keep on clicking through those messages and post what you want anyway. In journalism school, there are whole semesters devoted to fact checking and tracking down sources. Maybe we should devote high school semesters to that, too.
My dad is a great example here. He is very smart. He’s a dentist, he can fix absolutely anything, and he retains it all! He is the type to make small talk with store owners or other experts to learn exactly how they do what they do. And it means that whenever cement is poured on a neighbor’s driveway or lox is sliced super thin at the bagel place, he knows exactly how every mechanism works. He’s brilliant, and I love him. But he has also found joy in Facebook, where he sends me countless videos or articles that I can tell are bogus from one look at them. I know to inspect the URL, to dig into the author, to even check when it was published. He doesn’t. And he doesn’t know how to go incognito with a fake email address to access extra Washington Post articles, which is why he once sent me one of the most “brilliant essays he’d ever read” from a site called PanamaCity.net that I later found was plagiarized from, I think, Thomas Paine.
He does pay for some news subscriptions, but the bad stuff finds him way more easily. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s right there and it looks so enticing.
I do believe that paywalled journalism is better than ad-based journalism. I think that it’s a more sustainable model and I think that ads are annoying and stressful for the publishers and force us to do things like 15 Brilliant Towels You Can Buy On Amazon That You Didn’t Know Would Change Your Life! But I also think that good, true, important information should be free and accessible to all. Particularly the information that could save a life or save a democracy.
What’s the answer? How do we support journalists and researchers and academics who are doing the most important work: telling the truth and holding our institutions to account? How do we support the journalists who have been saying all along to WEAR A MASK AND STAY HOME when there are plenty of people out there tweeting garbage articles on covidisahoax.xyz encouraging people to protest and rally and travel all over America to do so? How do we stop all of our institutions from crumbling with dwindling ad support, and therefore stretching our writers to the point of exhaustion so that they can get the ad impressions needed or woo elusive subscribers and keep not only their job, but their entire institution, afloat? Why isn’t “the truth” enough of a draw for readers?
I have no solutions here. I just can’t stop thinking about it and I whisper the truth is paywalled but the lies are free over and over in my head and so I wanted you to join me in that 2 a.m. spiral.