The Value of Quality: The Great Paywall Debate

Arianna Huffington examined the paywall debate and established her own beachhead – and, incidentally, Huffington Post’s, as well – on the side that favors free content, in a recent editorial, “On Change, Disruptive Innovation, and the Problem with Paywalls.”

“We definitely won’t be erecting any paywalls at HuffPost,” she announced, perhaps prematurely, since the new media site only just moved in with its new business partner, AOL, and the fruit of what’s kindly been called a merger (despite AOL buying Huffington Post outright) has yet to appear on the vine. It remains to be seen if AOL will want to erect a farmstand to sell HuffPost’s produce.

And the debate over paid content? At the Changing Media Summit (which inspired Huffington’s post), The Times of London’s Paul Hayes, commenting on the paper’s decision to use a paywall, said, “We believe in the quality of our journalism to such an extent that it’s worth paying for.”

Huffington pounces on this – “The implication being, of course, that those who don’t put their content behind a paywall don’t value their content.” – while confusing the difference between “quality” and “value.” For example, an audience may be willing to pay (value) for content created by journalists trained to a particular level of skill and with an understanding of the tenets of their profession (quality).

I agree with Huffington when she says that the idea that blogging “is only for shallow, uninformed bloggers, and that online legacy journalism is the only domain for ‘deep analysis’ feels about as old as the Tower of London.”

I make no claims that blogs don’t or can’t uphold the same journalistic professionalism as pay-based media. The medium is certainly capable and so are many of its practitioners. But, here again, she’s confusing the argument. “Deep analysis” is a type of content; its home is on the editorial pages. “Journalism” is something else again, and opinion, subjectivity and a less-than-thorough review of the facts are strived against in the sections of media channels dealing with news. Blogs, like Huffington Post, are often, though not always, aggregators of news and events, and their contribution, in the form of original content, tends to be opinion, and they are not always clear about the difference between aggregation and origination.

There’s a lot of hand-clapping in Huffington’s editorial about “blurring the line” – between Old Guard journalism and blog-writing, between being a reporter and being a reader – content blending into one big pot of information soup stirred by a collaborative of cooks.

She quotes Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion: “We are ceasing to be consumers of mass media; we are becoming participants in social media – a far more fluid environment in which we simultaneously act as producers, consumers, curators, and commentators, sharing our thoughts and perceptions with people we know and with people we don’t.”

This immersive nature of the Internet “makes the idea of paywalls and walled gardens all the more unproductive,” Huffington concludes. “They go against the fundamental nature of the medium – and fundamental natures have a way of winning out.”

Hard to disagree there – this is an altogether different medium than TV, and the masses will vote on this with their Facebook “Likes.” However, chalking up the thinking around paywalls and new media platforms to Ludditism is in its own way an easy bit of prejudice.

It’s pretty simple to say “blogging is great” when you’re pointing to a few good news blogs, rather than the entire panoply of content offered on the platform. The majority of blogs out there in the Ethernet are conveying information that is highly opinionated, highly personal and intended for smaller groups of people than the widely read news and opinion providers Huffington is referencing.

We neither expect these blogs to be updated regularly nor do we write in when they make mistakes with spelling or grammar or fail to attribute quotes or cite sources for information. This is not how I, or many others, would feel about a commercial blog, with or without a paywall.

To argue that we’re entitled to free information on the Internet flies in the face not of the value of that information, but of the quality. Sure, it’s been helpful to be able to reference The New York Times on the Internet whenever I’ve wanted; now, depending on the article, I may have to pay for the privilege of peering behind their paywall. In the past, one either had to buy a copy of the paper or go to the library to look up an article or reference for free. If I want the kind of quality journalism that comes from objective, researched, well-edited reportage that doesn’t blur the lines between fact and opinion, I understand when I plunk down my $1.29 at the newsstand, or hand over my credit card digits online, that I’m supporting not an Old Guard institution that signifies my Luddite thinking, but the salaries of people whose years of training and experience have ripened into expertise as reporters and editors. And that is something worth paying for.

If one is calling for the best of all possible worlds, then, in my humble understanding of the notion, unpaid and paid options should be available to audiences who can choose based on their needs and interests, on the quality of the content, and the value they assign to it.