Paywalls – If You Build It They Will Come

The other night I asked my teenage son to plough through his mountain of homework and finish it by the time I got home. Asked being the crucial word here. That I found him on the PS4 when I returned will come as no surprise to any parent of a teenager.

The next evening I didn’t ask, I compelled him. There was no other option, no get-out clause, no invitation for his subconscious ‘other’ to get away with it.

Asking someone to do something is never going to be the same as telling them. And it is this semantic gulf that has been exercising me after becoming embroiled in a very minor Twitter spat with a writer who contributes to the Guardian.

The media company and its journalists have been working overtime to capitalise on the brilliant reporting of Carole Cadwalladr, whose exposes of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the deeply worrying side of the internet have been exemplary. Journalism at its finest and an example of what true teamwork on a budget can achieve.

This is the kind of work, say Guardian cheerleaders, that shows how important it is you fund us. We may be giving the stuff away for free but we’re politely ‘asking’ you to donate. ‘A favour’ as the Guardian website gently suggests on every page you ever click on. Persuasive, laudable but totally unrealistic. Yes, some will donate – others, like me, may even do the quaint old-fashioned thing of exchanging money for a hard copy. But the majority will do what they’ve always done and plunder it for free.

On Twitter, I asked one of those calling out for Carole-donors if maybe the answer is to charge for such unique and well-researched material, that readers should pay for the privilege. ‘That is why we’re asking you to pay,’ came the slightly patronising response. ‘Don’t ask, tell,’ I replied. Which then led to her lobbing some abuse my way and hastily shutting down the discussion.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across another example. In the New Statesman, its deputy editor Helen Lewis – in a typically excellent piece on the struggles of media in the internet age – defended her magazine’s recent decision to charge for accessing the NS website.

There are two broad options for media owners today, she suggested. One is to create material that will attract advertising, the sort favoured by clickbait sites or unashamedly populist ones such as MailOnline. The other ‘is to reject serfdom and build up your own kingdom: attract readers directly to your website, and ask them to pay something, rather than fund your journalism largely through adverts that users can find intrusive and irritating.’

True, except in one small detail. These companies are not asking, they are compelling. Like my teenage son and his homework, asking will not always get the desired response. Telling – forcing? – will. The New Statesman, like The Times, Telegraph, Spectator and many others, is not asking me to contribute, it is compelling me too. And I do pay, it’s a brilliant product.

Thus, there is a third way. Clickbait, paywalls and the Guardian’s model of voluntary donations. Apparently, it’s working. According to the Guardian Media Group’s chief executive David Pemsel, there are 200,000 subscribers and 300,000 members, as well as 300,000 donors from across the world who have made one-off payments. Though he doesn’t say if there is any crossover between the three.

The internet is coincidentally enjoying its teenage years much like my son, and the same problem exists. Asking is not the same as demanding. I doubt whether the Guardian’s fingers-crossed-free model is sustainable. A paywall will soon be erected and brilliant journalism such as Carole’s will cease to be given away for free as part of a cynical attempt to secure more eyeballs.

There was another bit of that Twitter exchange that made me laugh. My opponent said: ‘If enough people give then it might be viable to survive in a…paywall era.’

When I pointed out that we always lived in a paywall era, it’s just that we used to call it a ‘cover price’, she replied that we ‘obviously did not always live in a paywall era…’ before flouncing off to bed in a huff.

Much like my teenage son.

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