Richard Stengel, writing for The Atlantic:

How many times has it happened? You’re on your computer, searching for a particular article, a hard-to-find fact, or a story you vaguely remember, and just when you seem to have discovered the exact right thing, a paywall descends. “$1 for Six Months.” “Save 40% on Year 1.” “Here’s Your Premium Digital Offer.” “Already a subscriber?” Hmm, no.

Now you’re faced with that old dilemma: to pay or not to pay. (Yes, you may face this very dilemma reading this story in The Atlantic.) And it’s not even that simple. It’s a monthly or yearly subscription—“Cancel at any time.” Is this article or story or fact important enough for you to pay?

Or do you tell yourself—as the overwhelming number of people do—that you’ll just keep searching and see if you can find it somewhere else for free?

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, more than 75 percent of America’s leading newspapers, magazines, and journals are behind online paywalls. And how do American news consumers react to that? Almost 80 percent of Americans steer around those paywalls and seek out a free option.

Paywalls create a two-tiered system: credible, fact-based information for people who are willing to pay for it, and murkier, less-reliable information for everyone else. Simply put, paywalls get in the way of informing the public, which is the mission of journalism. And they get in the way of the public being informed, which is the foundation of democracy. It is a terrible time for the press to be failing at reaching people, during an election in which democracy is on the line. There’s a simple, temporary solution: Publications should suspend their paywalls for all 2024 election coverage and all information that is beneficial to voters. Democracy does not die in darkness—it dies behind paywalls.

I’d go one step further than Stengel did: I think paywalls entirely are mostly unnecessary for regular news websites. There should be an exception for small firms or publications that mainly focus on analytical coverage or opinion pieces, such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic, even though there is irony in an article about paywalls being hidden behind a paywall, as Stengel rightly points out. The reason I say this is because analysis isn’t information per se in the same way regular, hard news and reporting is. The people who are interested in analysis or a columnist’s views on a topic are much more likely to pay for that information — it’s just news that needs to be balanced and free.

Paywalls are a relic from a time when newspapers were bought from newsstands daily and read in coffee shops across the country. Every day, people would buy a newspaper for a quarter, read it, then leave it for the next person to read — and so on, every day. Newspaper publishers saw an opportunity to sell subscriptions to these papers to frequent readers, who perhaps could save some money by buying the newspaper at a discounted monthly or yearly rate as opposed to buying a new paper every day. When the online era took over and as people bought fewer physical newspapers, publishing houses moved to sell those subscriptions online.

As inflation hiked, however, newspaper subscriptions became more expensive. Now, The New York Times costs $25 a month because the physical copy costs $4 per paper ($4 a day for 30 days is $120 a month, so the digital version is still cheaper, obviously). In parallel, news became more affordable due to the advent of online advertising and free journalism, causing many to drop their subscriptions and just consume free news published by digital-only websites, like The Verge or NBC News. The result of this schism is that there is a divide between free and paid journalism, as well as the quality of information that emanates from each source.

This is the core of Stengel’s piece: The online media landscape gives credence to clickbait because it spreads so quickly due to it being free. Free articles metastasize through the internet so rapidly because everyone can read them. But this abundance of free, semi-factual journalism is spreading and warping the public’s perception of the news media because good journalism just isn’t being sold and marketed properly. These online media companies often make more money than the print publishers that sell subscriptions because of how quickly the information spreads on social media. Why aren’t print publishers picking up on this?

I firmly believe more websites should drop the paywall entirely and instead opt to sell effective, non-intrusive advertising, which can often be lucrative. Newspapers themselves are already fantastic examples of how lucrative advertising can be, as they sell full-page ads in innovative formats, which advertising companies are itching to cash in on. This is part of the game of journalism in 2024 — if we want the media to be a reliable arbiter of information without relegating the ever-important job of reporting to citizen journalists on social media websites like X or Threads, the corporate overlords who control the media should get better at making it profitable.

The news industry is at a crossroads, with the hastened development of generative artificial intelligence in newsrooms and the increased popularity of foreign-owned video websites like TikTok, where more Americans are getting their information from than ever before. At a critical time like this, journalism should become more accessible, innovative, and forward-facing — and removing paywalls is a key step in that direction.