OK, to start off here, I need to admit to being a thief. The title for this column was stolen from Megan Garber at the Nieman Lab, a sort of think tank for journalism.
She coined the term “ethiconomics” in 2011 to describe the collision of ethics and economics when the New York Times instituted a so-called “paywall” to charge for its online news.
At the time, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the country’s most celebrated newspaper, conceded that some travelers on the internet highway were likely to manuever around what was more curtain than wall, or just sort of a WINO – wall in name only.
Sulzberger dismissed these scallywags in various ways:
“Is it going to be done by the kind of people who buy the quality news and opinion of the New York Times? We don’t think so.
“It’ll be mostly high school kids and people out of work.”
And it will be theft “just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running you can actually get the Times free.”
Garber didn’t see it quite that simply and posed her own questions.
“Is deleting cookies or URL characters from a web browser directly akin to stealing a physical product from a newsstand?” she pondered. “And, then, is ad-blocking software immoral? Is reading Times content, for free, on someone else’s computer?”
Deleting cookies or URL characters, for those who don’t know, is one way to get around paywalls that usually want to tempt you with a peak inside the whorehouse before demanding that you pay. They track your visits, let you see the show one or five or 50 times, and then slap down the demand for money.
So is it theft if you swallow the chemicals that make you “The Invisible Man” and walk in unseen?
Or as Garber put it:
“In a digital environment where so much is accessible and so little is own-able, what exactly — ethically, legally, pragmatically — is yours? And what, exactly, is mine?”
She went on to fairly define the argument over WINO as the “interplay between ethics, economics, and the communal good.”
Craigmedred.news on Tuesday offered one suggestion on how to manuever around the newly arrived paywall at the Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest and arguably most influential online news site. There are better and easier ways than were suggested if you want to jump the wall, as Graber described the go around.
If you know how to use Google, the search engine, you can easily find these ways if you haven’t already.
In the interest of transparency, I should probably note here that the ADN is my former employer. We split after I caught a state official, then Alaska Board of Fisheries member Roland Maw, apparently engaged in an illegal act. He has since been charged with multiple felonies related to the theft of Permanent Fund Dividends.
The ADN did not like me investigating Maw. Some now think I hold a grudge because we parted ways over this, but we separated amicably at least on my part. When I left the ADN, I took publisher Alice Rogoff roses and thanked here for a good and long run at Alaska Dispatch, the predecessor to the new ADN.
“What are these for?” she asked. “You’re not going anywhere.”
There are probably times now when she wishes she’d been wrong. I generally try to avoid writing about the ADN, and then still end up writing more about it than I want. It’s hard to avoid. ADN is the 10-ton elephant of Alaska journalism. The rest of the business is sort of the mice scrambling around its feet.
The ADN makes the news as much as it reports the news. It made news with the paywall. And as has already been stated, craigmedred.news reported one way of the many to get around the wall.
Suggesting to the huddled masses a means to freely partake of what Garber called the “communal good” didn’t go over all that well with a few people, mainly journalists and former journalists. Some accused me of encouraging theft, something along the lines of what Abbie Hoffman did in his counter-culture tome of 1971: “Steal This Book.”
The theft accusation represents a perfectly valid point of view.
It would, however, hold more substance if Rogoff hadn’t just last month written of her history with the proudly free Alaska Dispatch.com and her belief “then — as I still believe — that publishing the news is a public service, and we wanted our new, broader content to be accessible to all Alaskans and everyone in the world who wanted to know more about this wonderful place.
“I still feel that way. Publishing the news is a way of contributing to a ‘civil society’ and I still want our news to be available to anyone who wants to be better informed about Alaska and the issues that affect us.”
When the woman who owns the company tells you she believes “news is a public service” that should be “available to anyone” how can it be wrong to tell the “high school kids and people out of work” – or others who can’t or simply don’t want to pay – how to obtain it free of cost?
Online news isn’t like a newspaper. If you want to read it, you can’t find a computer just lying around somewhere or dig it out of a dumpster as a Talkeetna fan of the defunct Anchorage Daily News used to do or peruse it before you use it to start a fire in the woodstove of a Chugach National Forest cabin.
Given this difference, a better ethical question might be this:
If you truly believe that “publishing the news is a way of contributing to a ‘civil society'” and thus a better democracy, is it ethical to deny people online access by demanding they pay to read?”
The journalists’ view
The answer to the last question from many journos appears to be not just “yes,” but “hell yes.” They might not give a damn if someone in the Alaska oil patches loses his or her job due to onerous state oil taxes, but they seem to care a lot about losing their own job or seeing more friends out of work because someone jumps a paywall.
I fully understand this view. I don’t like to see anyone out of work. Work is a good thing. Work defines people’s lives. I’m at a keyboard working right now because if I didn’t work I would go crazy.
But I don’t subscribe to the view of other journalists that it is somehow the obligation of readers to support us just because, well, just because they should.
Yes, I know, as journalists we think our work really important. It’s why some of us worked long years at low pay for newspapers making ginormous profits. It made us feel noble. We were performing that “public service,” and never mind that the people actually running the newspapers were gouging the readers.
As journalists, we’re kind of full of ourselves when we aren’t just full of shit.
Newspaper profit margins historically ran around 20 percent a year, but were up over 25 percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The profit margin for the average American company? 7.5 percent.
Given these sorts of profits, did any journalists ever mount the barricades to demand publishers cut subscribers a break and give them a better rate on the local paper? Hell no.
Up until recently, the economics of news just didn’t matter to most reporters.Many of them actually tried to isolate themselves from the people involved in making economic successes of newspapers. Journos always kind of thought of themselves as the typing elite.
Funny how things change with reporting jobs threatened. Some juornos are now rightly mad at me for providing paywall information readily available on the internet as if I’d somehow given away the secret code that was going to save them.
“Broadcasting how to beat their paywall is a colossal jerkoff move,” Brad Boner, a photojournalist, wrote on Facebook. “The same procedure can be used on a lot of other great news sites that suffer when readers believe they are entitled to free stuff, including their local news. Thanks for your contribution to the slow demise of quality journalism, asshole.”
Most of those who are objecting appear to have done little or no research. If they had, they would have found that paywalls yield little revenue – about 1 percent for newspapers in the U.S – or, worse, backfire on the publications that resort to them.
“They are truncating the size of the digital market, when the most important factor for digital is scale,” media consultant Alan Mutter told AFP, the French news agency, last year.
“A study this year by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found only 10 percent of readers in English-speaking countries were willing to pay for digital news,” the AFP said.
Support your local newspaper?
All of which brings this back to what Graber called “the communal good.”
Alaskans are, in a way, getting a chance to vote on the communal good. If they think ADN contributes to it, they can subscribe to the tune of $100 per year. If they think the opposite, they can refuse to subscribe.
If the national experience is reflected in Alaska, many will vote for the latter option. Some of them will, unless the ADN makes its WINO into a real wall, continue to read for free. Is this a good thing or a bad thing or a non thing?
That is a question that operates on a variety of levels. Non-subscribers do not provide the ADN any direct revenue, but having a non-subscriber use the site arguably has more benefit than having them abandon. The non-subscriber still shows up as a click, and if he or she happens to click an ADN advertiser’s link there is extra value to that click.
There is no value in the people who abandon, which yet again brings us back to the communal good. If people abandon, where will they go?
Some will, no doubt, move to AlaskaPublic.org, KTUU.com, KTVA.com, AlaskaCommons.com, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (which has a limited paywall) or other websites. All of these websites are doing some decent journalism. Some of them are getting better by the day.
None of them have anywhere near the reach of the ADN at this time.
If the ADN shrinks, will it mean there is room for the others to grow? AlaskaPublic.org is buttressing its staff with a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant that funds six reporters for what it calls “Alaska’s Energy Desk,” which reports on a lot more than energy.
Will it be able to afford those reporters when the funding runs out? If fewer clicks at ADN translate into less traffic for advertisers, will some of them move their spending to AlaskaPublic and help keep those six reporters employed? Will other websites expand or simply up their profits if they get new adverstisers who decide ADN’s reach is shrinking? Will new news sites develop? Will old ones reinvigorate?
Will the communal good be enriched by a broader variety of voices moving into a vacuum left by more difficult access to ADN, or damaged by the shrinkage of today’s biggest voice?
In deciding the future of local journalism, this is something in which everyone now has a say. As a journalist, I think everyone should support journalism everywhere. But that is not as simple as some former journos make it out to be.
The news environment today is not the news environment of two decades ago. Then it was easy to argue “support your local newspaper.” Now there are essentially many electronic newspapers. Online, there isn’t much difference between ADN and several radio/TV sites. So what is your local newspaper?
There are a lot of ways to support local journalism other than subscribing to the dominant news organizations. Other websites mentioned above would be just as happy to have your business. AlaskaPublic.org solicits donations. AlaskaCommons and the rest are always on the search for more advertisers. Donations are welcome here, or advertisers or sponsors.
Because I do agree with Rogoff on the most important thing: news is vital to a functioning society. Public discussion of the news is especially vital to a functioning democracy. I’d love to grow this site to expand that discussion. I’m sure other news sites feel similarly.
ADN thinks its website is so much better than the alternatives that you should be willing to pay for it. Whether it is right or wrong is for you to decide. If you think the news there is worth $100 per year, pay and pay now.
But there is no reason, at this time, that you have to pay.
The ADN, like everyone else, is using a delivery service you already pay for in some way. ADN isn’t paying carriers to deliver news online. It isn’t funding a new printing press on which to print the news online or buying heavy rolls of newsprint to cram through the tubes. All ADN is doing is paying reporters to move electrons around in space.
Every other news organization is doing the same. And they are financing the effort with various means (or working for damn near nothing as here) in the name of providing a public service. The ADN now wants money for that service. The suggestion is that it vitally needs the money to survive.
“We don’t need to make money,” Rogoff wrote, “but we have to stay afloat.”
How do we know the ADN isn’t making money now? Has ADN opened its books for public review? Look, if a newspaper wants to say “our product is so valuable you should pay for it,” I’m down with that. But guilt tripping readers with the suggestion the newspaper is about to fail and it’s a community responsiblity to support it?
What makes the newspaper owned by the wife of one of the richest men in the country any different from your local hairdresser with two kids who also has “to stay afloat?”
“National Lampoon” once ran a famous magazine cover with a photo of a dog with a gun to its head and the caption “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” Maybe ADN could try that pitch next.
Then we could all debate whether it was ethical to risk that dog’s life by walking past that magazine without picking it up. I bought every copy I saw. I might have saved that dog.
It was an individual ethics decision. I believe in those. Everyone has the right to make them. I didn’t tell anyone to jump the ADN’s WINO; i told them where to find the peeophole in the rickety wall.
Because that’s what journalists do. They provides people information. Accurate information. They don’t make ethical decisions for people. They don’t lecture them on how to use information.
They might offer advice in those areas, but mainly the journalist’s role is to provide the information, outline the context and parameters of the information, and leave it for public discussion.
Journalism helps people understand how systems work, and enables them to make decisions on how to interact with those systems.
The Founding Fathers understood this when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution. They intentionally erred on the side of openness. They wanted the freest exchange of information the world has ever seen.
I share that view. If people don’t like it, they have options. They can build a better wall to keep unpaying readers from reading their content, or they can petition Congress or their local legislature to write a law making it illegal to jump a paywall. I’d love to listen to a national debate over the latter.
And if this makes me an asshole, so be it. I’m an asshole.