Paywalls, empowerment and “information apartheid”

John Paton

Nicole Narea and Clifton Wang of the Yale Daily News have written a preview of “The Wired City,” which is primarily about the life and times of the New Haven Independent, an innovative online-only nonprofit news site.

At a moment when online paywalls have become one of the biggest issues debated within the news business, it’s interesting that both the Independent and its newspaper competitor, the New Haven Register, have decided to keep their sites free. Here’s what Independent founder and editor Paul Bass tells the Yale Daily News:

We need to cut down on the information apartheid. If we are going to construct a paywall, we may as well not publish. We believe in community empowerment through journalism.

Of course the Register, as a for-profit entity, has a different challenge: selling enough online advertising to justify its decision to continue giving away its news. It’s a philosophy that John Paton, chief executive of the Register’s corporate parent, the Journal Register Co., describes as “Digital First.”

Journal Register is currently in bankruptcy for the second time in four years, but is expected to re-emerge later this spring. No doubt it’s going to be painful — among other things, employees have been told they will have to reapply for their jobs, and it is far from clear how many will be rehired. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America recently had some tough words for Journal Register, reports Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business.

As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journal Lab observed last September, the re-emergence from bankruptcy will also represent the best chance for Paton — one of the most closely watched executives in the newspaper business — to prove that a digital orientation can turn around a legacy newspaper chain with a lower-revenue, lower-cost approach. Interesting times ahead.

Photo found at Newspaper Death Watch.

2 thoughts on “Paywalls, empowerment and “information apartheid”

  1. Andy Koppel

    I find it offensive that a legitimate business practice can be smeared as apartheid, with all of its historical connotations. Newspapers have every right to charge for their products and services, and consumers have every right not to buy, although I think that would be short-sighted. Why not blame advertisers then? (That’s a rhetorical comment.)

    With apartheid behind us, one can only wait breathlessly for the first holocaust comparison. Newspapers were not obligated to continue offering their work at no charge when that model ceased being viable. They have done nothing evil; they are trying to survive. They are not gouging; they are not even charging very much.

    How many people who applaud this attitude are prepared to make the same sacrifice, that is offer their services at no or lesser charge?

  2. Paul Bass

    I agree they’ve done nothing evil. I’m glad the NYT is boosting its revenue from readership. I was talking about not-for-profit sites like the one I edit, the Independent. If we are truly going to carry out a not-for-profit mission, we have to dedicate ourselves to making more information available, not enhancing the trend toward two levels of information-availability in society, a trend that I believe further promotes inequality.

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