Will Paywalls Destroy Media Plurality?

With splintered media outlets and polarized populations already, paywalls may cause more problems


The success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries has shown just how polarized modern politics has become. The last three years have seen near permanent log jam in congress, with congress Republicans attitude to legislation seemingly ‘if it moves, block it.’ This divide is not necessarily the fault of politicians though. It is a consequence of a problem consuming the whole of society, caused by a dramatic change in the way that we consume information in the internet age. And as newspapers become more and more desperate for online revenue, this is only going to get worse.

Even President Obama is expressing concerns about media plurality, complaining about what he called the ‘balkanization of media’. Obama argued that ‘our media is now splintered. Some people are just watching Fox News; some people are just reading the New York Times. So they don’t even start with a common baseline of facts. They almost occupy two different realities in terms of how they see the world.’ While obviously all presidents are going to complain about media that is not on their side, and his criticisms are largely directed at the right, it is not purely a right wing issue. Liberals are equally guilty of committing to entrenched polarization.

This is partly a symptom of the success of Fox News’s business model, which is less about providing information than it is acting as an extension of the Republican party - a model MSNBC has tried to replicate on the other end of the political spectrum for the Democrats. Social media too has exacerbated the problem. People now approach media with an ‘us against them’ mentality, picking a news source that spins information in such a way as to fit a narrative they agree with and only venturing outside this bubble to express outrage when someone disagrees with it. In the internet era, it has become normal for a lot of people who live in those self-constructed media spaces in which there is no difference in opinion. People tend to have friends and follow people on social media that share a similar world view with them, and everything they see reinforces this and more deeply entrenches their opinions. Big data requires analysis by algorithms, and they in turn create filter bubbles. Facebook deploys sophisticated algorithms to help us navigate the otherwise bloated social mediascape which promotes news feed content that aligns with a user’s profile, location, interests, online habits – what they post, share, recommend and ‘like’. In such a ‘filter bubble’, it is the variety of opinions and attitudes is being judged, instead of being appreciated as it has been until recently. Ultimately, everyone who disagrees becomes a fascist.

The rise of paywalls and membership subscriptions is likely to make this problem even worse. The rapid death of print media has seen newspapers move online, and this transition has seen them having to search for new sources of revenue. Many up to now have relied on digital advertising, but this is under threat from the rise of ad blockers. By paying for a website subscription, it is far more likely that you will commit exclusively to that one source for your information, and buy into the narrative that it spins. The need for media outlets to be constantly pushing out new content ultimately means that far more opinion is put out, and facts and events are spun in so many ways so as to appear new, that what is important and what people need to know is obscured.

The implications of this are potentially dire. As Obama recently noted at an awards dinner for the Robin Toner prize, which honors the late New York Times political correspondent, ‘When our elected officials and our political campaigns become entirely untethered from reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn't matter what's true and what's not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America's strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society.’

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