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Dodging paywalls could cost you more than you think

Dodging paywalls could cost you more than you think

By Rebecca Munro

If you consume news via the internet, chances are you’ve encountered those ‘pesky’ paywalls.

We’ve all been there, enticed by an online headline only to be prompted to subscribe and hand over our money for the full story.

It’s frustrating, and many refuse to do it. It makes sense, budgets are tight and why now do we have to pay for something we’ve always received for free?

Here in WA it can cost anywhere between $1.75 a week for a WAtoday online subscription, to $1 a day for a full newspaper and online subscription for The West Australian.

There is a clear resistance to paying for news online, but the truth is, the pain to your pocket will be far less than the cost to Australia’s democracy if we stop paying for journalism.

Most of us are happy to fork out $9 a month for our Netflix subscription but why are we so hesitant to pay for journalism? Perhaps it comes from entitlement, a misconception that journalists perform a free public service. Many social media users who engage and comment on these locked stories seem to think so, often threatening publications with the dreaded ‘unfollow’.

There’s been arguments that paywalls create a socioeconomic breakdown of those who can afford to read quality journalism and those who can’t.

That’s a real concern but what is even more detrimental to a democracy, is unsustainable journalism.

Newsflash (pun intended) journalists need to get paid too, and you might be surprised to learn they don’t get paid much, for what they contribute.

Take for example recent Walkley Award winner Annabel Hennessy from The West Australian, who this year brought public attention to the incarceration of Aboriginal woman Jody Gore – convicted of killing her abusive ex-partner.

Ms Hennessy’s relentless chasing and investigative journalism resulted in Ms Gore being freed from prison and WA’s laws being re-written. She had the power to tell a story that wasn’t told in the courtroom.

Being a former journalist myself, I dare say Ms Hennessy likely spent long days and late nights having very difficult conversations and probably copping a fair bit of abuse for trying to find the truth – and that is worth our money.

When I see these outraged social media users complaining their news is trapped behind a paywall, I can’t help but think if they get paid for their job.

During the height of the pandemic in WA, we praised our health care workers, our shop assistants and all those risking their health and safety. Journalists were on the frontline too, providing the public with reliable up-to-date information when they needed it the most, and just like our other essential workers, they need to make a living.

If you think about it, this would have been the perfect time for newspapers to act like big business and jump on this in-demand opportunity by locking all content to gain more subscribers.

The majority didn’t exploit this and provided the daily COVID-19 online updates for free.

Yes, the media landscape has changed, and newspapers are forced to get sexier to sell more, but they haven’t lost the ability to create change, and keep our leaders accountable.

Unlike social media platforms, journalists and news publications are held to account for what they publish, and in return force our leaders, big business and members of the public to be accountable – that’s their job.

Journalists have university degrees and are trained to deliver balanced and factual information. In the past, newspapers have done well on advertising revenue but the more appetite for online content means a decline in sales, resulting in cutbacks.

The less journalists there are, the less time they have to dig deep into a story to find the truth on behalf of the Australian public. In other words, how else will we, as former Australian Democrat leader Don Chipp said, “Keep the bastards honest”?

Look at recent wage theft allegations against big companies including Woolworths. When journalists investigate these issues, they shine a public light on them and often force companies into doing the right thing in a bid to save their reputation.  If it wasn’t for journalists, we’d likely see goliath winning many more battles.

Right now, we can’t rely on social media platforms to provide news organisations with enough advertising revenue for them to disable paywalls, despite the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission establishing a mandatory code of conduct.

The code is supposed to encourage social media channels to pass on advertising revenue to the ones who actually create the content. The journalists, who spend hours making the phone calls or waiting outside on long crime scene stakeouts, inside courthouses or at Parliament House. But Facebook still refuses to pay news publications for what they produce.

Google has announced it will come to the table with some compensation, but we’d need all of them to get on board with a lot of money if we ever wanted to see the end of paywalls and a return to newsrooms full of senior reporters who actually have time to investigate.

Supporting real accountable journalism dilutes the overwhelming misinformation and disinformation we face on a daily basis and contributes to a healthy democracy.

As Thomas Jefferson, the man who led the US democracy movement once said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The fact is that people were paying for physical newspapers long before the internet rose to prominence, but now seem put off by the fact a digital subscription isn’t something you can physically hold in your hand. I’d argue having your news available digitally, on any device at any time is even more bang for your buck – and that’s worth paying for.