Today on Twitter we get this exchange between Stephen Maher, a political columnist for PostMedia and David Akin, the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for Sun Media (which really is just PostMedia). The general theme of their discussion? The CBC and their allies in Parliament who refuse to specifically define the organization’s mandate are killing off newspapers.
Simply put, Their argument is preposterous. If anyone is to blame for the supposed “death” of newspapers it is the papers themselves, and more specifically their parent companies, who are responsible for their own death. The decline of print journalism in this country is largely due to self-inflicted wounds.
One of the main arguments Maher and others use to explain why CBC is killing newspapers is that CBC’s model of providing free online content means it is impossible to make a paywall work. Superficially the idea of “why would people pay for something when you can get it for free” has some appeal. However, upon further examination, it is clear that this argument rests on a number of flawed assumptions. Primarily, it relies on the premise that CBC’s online content is, and would continue to be, the only source of free news on the internet. For international news that clearly is not the case. From BBC to CNN to Agence France Press, there is a multitude of places one can go for free news from around the world and some of it, such as the BBC, is even of world-class quality. Whether CBC exists or not, I’m still going to go to BBC, not the National Post for news about the air campaign against ISIS and the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
Furthermore, even within Canada, there are plenty of other free news sources that aren’t the CBC. Most prominent is the Toronto Star, but the Huffington Post also covers Canada, as does Vice and Buzzfeed. Between all of these online publications, I could easily get my fill of national news without ever visiting the CBC website OR paying for access to a Canadian newspaper’s online content. The only case where the argument about CBC taking away customers who would otherwise pay for access to content behind a paywall is somewhat valid is in relation to local news content. Even in this case though, many large cities have a Metro newspaper that is free and often provides the level of local coverage that most people want. Additionally, even if there was no CBC offering free, local news, I question how many people would pay solely for the “City” section. I suspect the answer is not many.
The second problematic assumption is that paywalls are not the only, or even the most effective, tool for generating revenue. As the New York Times found out in 2007, despite their TimesSelect paywall generating $10 million in revenue a year, its growth paled in comparison to the revenues generated by online advertising. Hence, the Times dropped their paywall for their post-1980 archives with the purpose of increasing readership and maximizing their income by focusing on the most productive revenue stream. While the Times reintroduced a paywall in 2011, it is the softest of soft paywalls and anyone with Google can easily view any article they wish to. In utilizing this approach, the paper is trying to generate the revenue of a paywall without losing traffic and ad revenue. How effective this strategy has been remains unclear. However, in respect to online ad revenue, CBC does not compete with anyone for the simple reason that their web content doesn’t have ads. Even if we assume that there is a finite amount of online advertising dollars available to Canadian publications (which there isn’t), CBC is not taking anyone’s share of the pie. There is nothing stopping PostMedia or any other online news site from maximizing their ad revenue by increasing traffic by offering attractive online content.
The third and final faulty assumption behind the “CBC ruins paywalls” argument is that it assumes that news consumption is, in the words of Jeet Heer, “a zero-sum game.” As obvious as it seems, reading one news source does not preclude someone from reading other news sources online. Rather, most people purposely read multiple publications every week to get different perspectives. Furthermore, having a low barrier of entry for reading the news on the CBC website might actually foster an individual’s interest in current affairs and encourage them to seek out more news from a diverse array of sources. Thus, the availability of free news does not mean that people will not pay for access to content. The problem for PostMedia is that they have not been producing content worth paying for.
Ultimately, the decline of newspapers and their inability to create new revenue streams from online content is a self-inflicted wound. Rather than providing value added content behind their paywall, PostMedia has instead chosen to cut, cut and cut some more. The inevitable result is decline in quality of news coverage leading Canadians to rightfully question why they would pay for access, especially when the Toronto Star is available for free and the Globe and Mail provides higher quality content for a similar price.
Additionally, both the Globe and Mail and PostMedia papers have made a series of poor decisions, driven by corporate concerns, that only served to alienate readers. Most notable is PostMedia’s decision to endorse Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in the 2015 Federal Election, over the protests of many of their papers’ editorial boards and in defiance of the opinions of 70% of Canadians. However, in many ways, the Globe and Mail’s decision to endorse the Conservative Party, but not Stephen Harper, was even more bizarre. It was as if they recognized the contempt most Canadians held for Prime Minister Harper and wanted to make their corporate interest driven decision more palatable to their readers. Ultimately, they failed on both accounts, as the Liberals won a majority and the Globe was subject to ridicule online.
Furthermore, The Globe and Mail also ignored the opinions of the vast majority of Canadians when they excluded Elizabeth May from their Federal Election debate. Despite almost 80% of Canadians wanting May included in all election debates, The Globe and Mail chose to ignore their demands and excluded her from the debate. It is this contempt for the public and their supposed customers, that caused me to cancel my Globe and Mail online subscription. I won’t switch to The National Post because I object to giving my money to a paper who refuses to fund quality journalism and uses their editorial page as a mouthpiece for the corporate interests of their owners. So in the end I will read CBC but not because I am not willing to pay for news; I did that for four years. Rather, I, and many others like me, are not willing to purchase the products currently on offer. The supposed death of Canadian newspapers is not murder, it is suicide.