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.

To Library Journal and The Annoyed Librarian: it’s about professional principles and codes of conduct

Should you print whatever you like if you own a press?

The Annoyed Librarian has whipped up a storm one again.   The recent column that drew ridiculous connections between the University of Alabama‘s recent posting for an untenured First-Year Experience Librarian position and the history of the south, e.g., the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door; and southern stereotypes, e.g., constantly bad weather has turned into so large a controversy that LJ’s editor, Francine Fialkoff, had to write her own piece on the situation.

Librarians in the blogosphere followed suit, and here I am doing the same.  I’m actually directing you to Andy Woodworth’s blog since what follows is a comment I left on his site:

But something also should be said about journalistic principles, Andy. Regardless of its profit-making motives (because face it, most organizations, are for-profit), LJ does have a role in what is written in the AL column. Making a connection between the stand in the schoolroom door and U of A’s FYE posting is not only illogical, but it is crass and border-line offensive. I could put up with how offensive it is if there was a real thread between the two, but there isn’t, so it perhaps shouldn’t have been written or published.

And this is where LJ comes into the equation. LJ should consider pulling the plug on the column, or at the very least have asked the AL to tone down this piece in particular. Some one might cry foul, yell “censorship!” or talk about first amendment rights, but frankly, LJ is completely in its right to edit for content in its own publication, and they should have in this instance.

Librarians of all stripes hold by professional codes of conduct. We have our ethical codes drawn up by various professional associations, and we **choose** to abide by them in one form or in varying degrees. The same can be said about journalism: LJ should hold itself to a higher level than it is doing here. It shouldn’t be crass simply to garner more hits, especially when what was written in the column was as outlandish as it is (i.e., satire is used to prove a point and not to find eyeballs). LJ shouldn’t think that they just because they only publish AL they can wash their hands of the means and methods that column uses to carry its opinions forward.

In the end, this issue has whipped up a storm because it’s speaking to professional values and principles in two different professions. There won’t be an answer on this and a consensus likely won’t be reached. But I don’t think we can let LJ walk away thinking that they have no part in this.

You can see that my concern lies with professional principles and codes of conduct.  This is something I read about a lot and think we all should try to adhere to since we’re in the business of providing access to opinions, thoughts, and speech.   It’s also something that is important to journalism, a profession that is equally concerned about access to opinions, thoughts, and speech.

What matters here is knowing when to draw the line.  When is it wrong to write something?   It is probably wrong to write something that is not factual, but columns often carry matters of fact as well as matters of opinion, which can be neither right nor wrong.  But this is where oversight can be useful: the illogical connections the AL made in her piece should have been revised before publication.

To the Annoyed Librarian and to Library Journal, I say, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”  To those of you who would tell me that I’m moving close to (self-)censorship or that I should just avoid LJ, I say that LJ is completely in their right to publish what they want, and for that reason we must hold them to account.


(Hats off to Brad Matthies, too, whose post got the discussion rolling between some of my own colleagues.)