Discover more from Nick's Kōrero
Beyond the Paywall.
See what's on the other side.
The Internet age arrived roughly thirty years ago, with the promise of making all of human knowledge available universally for free. Or to put it another way, we hadn’t thought of cat videos at that point.
I’m not sure if you remember the Internet of the early 90s, it was a very different place. Trolls hadn’t been invented yet and the people you encountered were genuine and helpful. Getting online back then wasn’t quite so trivial as it is now. Perhaps that contributed to more intelligent dialogue and interactions?
In the beginning the content wasn’t great although it often came with bright colours, and even jingles - remember when web pages used to play muzak? I’m glad that fad ended. But the technology improved and before you knew it people were using the internet to share music, access news, or even to meet someone.
Best of all, it was completely free. Which was good, unless you were someone like a musician who now saw your creative output being shared, without your say so, for no money. A small price to pay, well, no price actually, to get access to all that wonderful content.
Eventually the companies decided that just giving stuff away wasn’t good for business. People had found clever ways of avoiding advertisements and still getting the stuff they wanted, legally or otherwise. They were downloading MP3s and movies, burning oceans of CDs with their ill gotten gains. The industries said “enough”.
So today we have things like streaming services for video content. Sure people could still download the stuff for free but that’s a pain when you can pay ten bucks a month to have a vast amount of content available on demand.
The music industry came up with streaming solutions too. Services like Spotify providing a giant warehouse of all the music that has been recorded, so that artists could give it away, basically for free, in one convenient place for consumers. While a few tech “entrepreneurs” got wealthy out of letting people have it. Hurrah!
But what of the written word? Newspapers and Magazines? Companies tried paywalls early on, but there always seemed to be a free alternative that was just as good so they didn’t really catch on, other than in niche areas. But lately that seems to be changing.
More and more good quality, even quite average quality, journalism is moving behind the paywall, and it doesn’t look like it’s coming back. Many of the top newspapers around the world are now behind a paywall, their high quality writing not available to the general public. We see it here too.
Sites like Newsroom, or the National Business Review (NBR) require a paid subscription. The Herald of course is paywalled, and now too is it’s stablemate ZB, if you can believe that.
Yes, even the limited amount of quality on our equivalent of Fox News is now hidden away behind what they call ZB Plus. Which to me sounds like a positive test for being gullible and poorly informed.
Same thing over at Stuff, with writing from the likes of The Post, The Press, and The Waikato Times, now paywalled.
Which leaves the dross in the shop window for the masses. Reposted tabloid garbage from the likes of the Daily Mail in the UK, which they deem fit to inflict upon us. The worst reckons, that are not deemed “Premium” quality. Even though they come from the highest profile stupifiers - Mike Hosking anybody?
Didn’t think so.
Many people don’t even go to web pages any more, they choose to have the information, which is already pretty dire in many cases, filtered by Social Media.
That’s right, we let platforms like Facebook and Twitter direct us to the content their algorithms, their owners, want us to read. Which is a problem, because if you doubt that companies like NZME are focussed on delivering any public good, you can well and truly rest assured that the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are not.
Take for example this article from the Guardian, one of the few quality news sites that remains almost entirely free (they do limit the number of articles you can read in their mobile app over a given period).
After the 2022 US mid-terms Meta decided to allow political advertisers to say past elections were “rigged” or “stolen”, on their platforms (Facebook and Instagram). Even though it’s untrue, and is being spread to manipulate people.
In June YouTube said they’d stop removing content falsely claiming that the 2020 election was fraudulent. In August Twitter reversed it’s ban on political ads, and they have under Elon Musk welcomed back Trump’s tweets, an affront to all who are decent or honest.
So should we embrace the paywall?
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand you pay anyway. It might not be a monthly subscription, but you do pay. Whether it’s by being subjected to vast quantities of poorly targeted, stultifying advertising, or the wholesale collection, and sale, of your personal data to enable ever more targeted messaging.
You’re probably familiar with the expression “if you're not paying for the product, you are the product”. I think we might be putting too low a price on ourselves.
Beside which you pay for everything else, so why shouldn’t you pay for information? You don’t rock up to a supermarket and when they charge you for a loaf of bread say, “bugger that, I’m not paying for bread - what a rip off. I’m used to getting it for free.”
But even if you do pay money to access the good stuff, is the main motivation of the corporation providing it to see you well informed? Probably not. More on this in a bit.
Yeah, but who cares?
Hopefully all of us. Certainly anyone who cares about having a society where people make well informed political choices, and even understand enough about climate change, or vaccines, not to be appear as an evolutionary throwback.
We don’t get the nice things with half the population sucking the tailpipe of stupidity. Sorry, that’s probably enough about ZB.
The right wing prescription for overcoming inequality and disadvantage is always education. Which is a convenient way of ignoring the actual issues that cause the problem. But what if all the good quality information is behind the paywall? What if “educating yourself” or “doing your own research” is done within the confines of the cesspit outside the paywall?
We saw the result of that on October 14. The fact that many chose to elect parties who will make most people’s lives worse, including their own, speaks volumes about the information those people were consuming.
Certain political parties are just fine with this. Why on earth would National and ACT want bottom feeders to be educated? They want them doing minimum wage, manual jobs. Not thinking. What economic value is there in that?
Same deal with all the mom and pop, small business owners, getting by just fine as productive members of society despite having a fourth form level education. Why would politicians want those people to be informed on issues? Goodness, folks might expect something to be done about them, rather than just dragging their knuckles and saying “I don’t like this lot, time for the other lot”, every few elections.
But more concerning are the political or commercial constraints on what is said in the media, even if it is paywalled. We can see the influence on what we see, and what can be said, about the situation in Gaza. Even those with high profiles are not immune from being told what they can, and cannot, say.
In this article, on the cancellation of his show, Stewart “told members of his staff that potential show topics related to China and artificial intelligence were causing concern to Apple executives.” What could possibly go wrong with having company executives making editorial decisions about what gets reported?
So what’s the answer?
I thought you’d never ask.
As a starter for ten we need a large increase in public broadcasting funding. The state intervening to provide things of benefit to the greater population, which the market has no interest in providing. Have you seen the garbage the market wants to sell you? Why on earth would they want you to be educated?
But I wouldn’t hold your breath. The chance of Luxon and Seymour increasing public funding is as likely as Winston letting bygones be bygones with Jack Tame.
If we don’t want to be fed information as consumers, and voters, that manipulates us into bad decisions, we need to recognise the value in being well informed. The need for content beyond what’s available for free. The stuff on the other side of the paywall.
We’ve made a few individuals, be it Rupert Murdoch or Mark Zuckerberg, immensely wealthy feeding us manipulative low quality offal. How about instead of doing that we pay people who question and challenge things, to undertake their work free from corporate pressures? Not so they become wealthy, but to enable them to earn a modest living. As we would pay any other tradesperson for their craft.
Paying a commercial news organisation isn’t the answer.
Take a look at the NZ Herald page. Even if you’ve paid the level of advertising is obscene, the website is swamped, it’s like one of those naff sites from the 90s that had so many pop-ups they were unusable. It’s not exactly a “premium” experience.
Plus of course the editorial stance is dire, unless you subscribe to the mantra of “National always good, Labour always bad, Facts irrelevant”.
There is one honourable exception, a writer who is so good he’s worth the price of admission alone. You know who it is without me even saying it.
Simon Wilson is a national treasure, and the only reason to give the Herald any money. But you’re still left with that horrible feeling that you’re helping fund what is essentially a National Party advertorial. Wouldn’t it be better if Simon just ran his own Substack newsletter and the Herald closed down?
Some in the media claim we’d be even worse off, but I’m not so sure. Is it better to have poor quality information, that’s often misleading and not particularly informative, or none at all?
This isn’t a plea for you to subscribe to this newsletter by the way, although there will be a button below for that should you wish. It’s really asking that we think of the work of independent writers as worth supporting, as providing an alternative to the mainstream. In much the same way we might support a local artist, or a local musician, who offers something different.
It’s about asking whether the things we put into our heads are worth paying for, as much as the other things that sustain us. Rather than a paywall stopping us getting what we want, it simply means we’re paying to access it. The same as we do for anything else we might wish to consume.
The internet we imagined back in the early nineties has not come to fruition. If I spend time scrolling through Social Media a high proportion of the items I see, which aren’t from people I know, are just clickbait.
On the other hand if I jump on the Substack app, or website, I’m blown away by the amount of interesting ideas and information I find. Albeit that you have to stump up a few bucks to pay for some of it.
I really encourage you to check out more on Substack, and pay for what you really want to read. Rather than accepting low quality content and being bombarded with advertising.
Your time is precious, life is too short to spend time reading opinions that insult your intelligence, or articles that are merely distractions from important issues.