26th November 2023 – (Hong Kong) Searching for breaking news, only to hit an abrupt paywall demanding your credit card, has become a routine frustration. But this nuisance reflects a deeper ethical dilemma facing journalism today. Paywalls offer a lifeline to publishers struggling to stay afloat. Yet charging readers directly contradicts the mission to spread truth freely. Despite the business case, restricting public access to information through paywalls can never be socially responsible.

Wall Street Journal actively promotes its discounted subscription rate to Hong Kong readers.
SCMP has been carrying out similar marketing tactics recently on social media to woo subscribers.

This issue arose in the 90s as readership moved online. Traditional ad models collapsed, forcing publishers to seek new revenue streams. The solution – erecting paywalls – provided vital income but prevented broad access.

Some justify paywalls as a necessary evil, allowing outlets to profit while maintaining integrity. But this assumes quality journalism depends on paywalls. In reality, paywalls tend to help large corporate publishers over small independents. Worse, paywalls divide society into information haves and have-nots. Those unable to pay lose access to reporting affecting their lives. Paywalls effectively deny disadvantaged citizens the tools of democracy. Advocates downplay this, insisting people should just pay a few cents for news but studies show paying customers skew wealthier and better educated. Paywalls exclude those already marginalized from civic life. This is anathema to journalism’s purpose. Curtailing public knowledge to serve business interests violates democratic principles. Paywalls also spread misinformation by locking credible reporting while fake news flows freely.

Some say paywalls encourage better journalism by freeing outlets from pandering for clicks but no such freedom justifies limiting truth to elites. Plus “non-profit” models like NPR produce quality reporting without paywalls, disproving this argument.

In reality, paywalls allow publishers to ignore communities underserved by for-profit media. When profits dictate coverage, society’s information needs get ignored. Paywalls exacerbate this distortion. Advertising raises issues too, often compromising independence and integrity. But far better alternatives exist, like reader donations or public funding. Even scraping by on thin ad revenues is nobler than denying access.

Journalism’s purpose is to serve society, not shareholders. Hence business sustainability alone cannot justify paywalls. The essence of reporting is conveying truth widely, equitably and ethically. Paywalls oppose this principle.

Some compare news to other paywalled products like Netflix. But unlike entertainment, journalism provides the knowledge needed to function in a democracy. Vital news must be accessible to all, regardless of income. Nor do paywalls guarantee journalistic integrity or business success. Advertising drove journalism’s golden age, showing other models can enable great reporting. Meanwhile, paywalled outlets still peddle sensationalism and corporate PR to attract paying subscribers.

In the digital era’s turbulence, paywalls offer a quick fix to falling revenues. But this panacea comes at the cost of dividing society and betraying journalism’s democratic values. Once profit prevails over public service, both ethics and excellence fall victim. If paywalls are unavoidable, a compromise could be granting limited free access. But when profits come first, publishers grow greedy, demanding higher subscriptions for more content. Thus “soft” paywalls often harden over time. Some believe news itself will disappear without paywalls, leaving the world worse off. But past innovations like radio, TV and the web brought more news to more people for free. Paywalls reverse this trend.

Great journalism succeeds by valuing truth over money. Though the digital transition is challenging ethically and financially, paywalls that restrict knowledge for gain are indefensible. Readers should oppose this betrayal of journalism’s public mission. Advertising, donations, public funding, pay-as-you-wish models – many options exist beyond paywalls. Where free access is impossible, prices must be low and exceptions made for the disadvantaged. Profit cannot justify denying citizens the information they need to be free.

Journalism will only regain lost trust when it truly serves readers before shareholders. Paywalls, at root, treat news as a commodity rather than public service. The media’s troubled business model needs reinventing, not unethical quick fixes. By forgetting its democratic purpose, journalism seals its own fate. Paywalls symbolise this distortion of values. Readers are right to demand dismantling barriers that place profits above people. Ethical reporting means meeting society’s needs, not just serving customers who pay.

The solution lies with Google, whose search engine drives traffic and attention. As its core mission is organising information, Google has a duty to provide open access to news. Hence it should penalise sites that erect paywalls by demoting them in results. Banning paywalled publications from Google News and search rankings will pressure them to tear down barriers. Given its immense influence, Google bears responsibility for keeping the web open. By diverting users to free sources, it can bring paywalled giants to heel. In short, Google has both the means and moral obligation to discourage profiteering from truth-telling. For democracy’s sake, it must stop enabling closed gardens that treat facts as property rather than public good.

If journalism believes itself vital to freedom, it must reflect this principle. No crisis justifies denying access to truth. For democracy to survive, certain things cannot be paywalled – and news is surely one.