Thoughts on The Globe and Mail’s Paywall Announcement

Here are some quick thoughts on The Globe and Mail’s announcement that it will create a paywall around their online content on October 22, 2012. On the one hand, I’m okay with this. Creators ought to be compensated for their work, and though The Globe has very, very deep pockets, I believe that it’s important that consumers begin to remember again that content isn’t free, labour has been invested into the journalism they are reading, and that there is a cost to what they want to read and view online.  (Of course, let’s hope the price stays fair. Journalism may have value, but no one wants to be gouged a few years down the line).

My professional perspective, though, is marked by a somewhat cynical reaction against change:

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Putting my librarian’s hat on, my first thought is that Globe’s paywall will alter how students find, access, and use news and current events in their assignments. Showing our users the obvious benefits of using scholarly databases (i.e., do you want to find high-quality material or do you want instant, yet sub-par results?) can already be a trying experience, and I wonder how many people we might lose – people who won’t want to turn to our Factiva and Lexis subscriptions to get the Globe’s perspective – after the paywall is installed? Why bother loading up Yet Another Database when there are so many other free newspapers to consider, or even just Google News?

Of course, it isn’t that bad.  Once students are told that scholarly databases are a requisite for their research, and once they’re given an opportunity to test and learn them, many do use them, and many do use them well enough.  So when next term’s assignment calls for two or three newspaper sources alongside the scholarly resources, we’ll show them how to use Factiva and Lexis, and many of our users will navigate these databases effectively. Come down off the cliff, librarian. Things are going to be okay. 

But I still have a concern about this paywall announcement, and it lies in the everyday consumption of news information. Honestly, I quickly got over the Librarian’s Dilemma that I noted above; I sincerely do think that things will be okay (or at least “okay enough”). But I’m thinking about the day when most reliable journalism sources will have instituted a paywall, and how the constraints that this subscription model places on our ability to read top-flight information would affect our culture. While I desire a balance between access to information and valued compensation to information creators, producers, etc., I do want to see easy, widespread access to high quality information.  I don’t ever want to see an Internet that has priced the best reporting, art, opinion, and literature out of the hands of the majority of internet users, and I hope that a “paywalled” web will not inhibit our society’s ability to access and consume the best content out there.

Let me put it another way.  I’m not really a fan of opera (even though I’d like to be) and I don’t go to the opera, but I appreciate that opera is no longer an exclusive night out for the highbrow elite amoung us. Today, opera is accessible and affordable, and anyone who can at least get to a stage can catch a performance if they want to see one.  Let’s hope that the come age of Internet paywalls doesn’t price most of us out of the best art and news and content that this medium can deliver.  So yes, I think a paywall is acceptable, but let’s just make sure we will all still be able to get to goods that same way that many of us can see legitimate theatre when we want to.