OPINION: Freedom of Information; the lurking danger behind paywalls

OPINION: Freedom of Information; the lurking danger behind paywalls

By Dinnah Ondari

The media sustainability debate brought to the fore by the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced media enterprises and media managers to relook their business models in a bid to survive the harsh economic times and shore up their revenue streams.

Even before COVID-19, a number of triggers to the decline of newspapers circulation were well documented: The availability of good substitutes in obtaining news information; the loss of advertising revenues due to information available on the internet; a change in readership demographics among younger audiences; the prohibitive costs of newspaper production and distribution; and the failure to appreciate fully the importance of digital lifestyle.

Evidently, the transition from print to digital media has been a difficult one for newspapers and magazine publishers. This can be attributed to the reluctance by readers to pay for content on the web on one hand and the unwillingness of clients to pay as much for online advertisements.

Journalism has for some years now been threatened by the availability of free news in a variety of formats ranging from radio, cable, televisions, newspaper and magazine websites. However, availability of free news has not satisfied the clamor for quality, accurate and in-depth information that can satisfy the dynamic needs of audiences.

With the advent of COVID-19 news outlets are increasingly adopting to the idea of pay walls to enable them to raise the much-needed revenue to enable them to maintain their operations and keep employees at work. However, studies have shown (Picard 2010) that with pay walls there is a high likelihood that social elites will have access to high quality news and information because they can pay for it as the rest of public is left with the poorer quality news selection. Elsewhere (Masnick, 2019) also observed that most people who pay for content behind paywalls are the wealthy and more educated ones.

Therein lies the challenge, the primary objective in journalism is to equip audiences with information that can empower them to improve their lives. Freedom of information is at the core of democratic societies. The rollout out of paywalls whether in hard of soft formats will invite questions on the in(convenience) of accessing content behind pay walls even by those who can afford to pay for it; bearing in mind that the users are already paying for the internet costs before initiating the process of paying for the content that are interested in reading on particular platform.

Another risk involves exposing those who cannot pay for the content to misinformation as they are left with no choice but to consume that which is free.

On soft paywalls for instance, media houses ensure that only the best content is paid for, this leaves out the rest of the audience who are not able to pay. Paywalls do not only limit the amount and quality of content but will also affect the amount of advertising revenue on digital platforms.

Before going the paywall way, a media house will need to consider the specific needs of their target audience, and the ease of access to the content for sale, failure to which paywalls may back fire.

The amount of revenue media houses can generate from paywalls is affected by not only the number of users willing to pay but also the convenience involved in access the content. Most importantly, affordability and ease of access may get users to your platform but only consistency and quality will keep them coming back and attract new subscribers. Readers will develop trust in a platform based on the ability of the latter to deliver content worth their cash and delivering exactly what was promised.

Dinnah Ondari is Manager, Press Freedom, safety and Advocacy – Media Council of Kenya

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