In a Pandemic, Should Journalism Be Freely Accessible for All?

In light of The Sunday Times’ expose on the Tory party’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic last week, we ask journalists to share their opinions on essential journalism, universal access to the media and if online paywalls are the answer.

Last week, The Sunday Times published an expose titled Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster, detailing the failings of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative party in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. The expose alleges that the government repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and, in doing so, have cost thousands and risked millions of lives.

Due to social distancing safety regulations issued by the World Health Organisation, most of us aren’t running to the shops to grab a newspaper in the morning. Instead, we’re becoming increasingly reliant on digital media to keep us informed during these trying times. 

So when I logged online last Sunday and found Twitter abuzz about the article, I was surprised to find that it sat behind a paywall. Online paywalls have become the norm for broadsheet newspapers, as national readership continues to decline and these publications are forced to find new ways to financially support themselves. But the Times’ online paywall sparked outrage online, with many arguing the contents of such an article should not be withheld from of the electorate. 

Personally, I felt split between the two arguments – as an independent publication, we not only respect The Sunday Times paywall, but we openly advocate for readers to financially support the publications they rely on and enjoy. But we also passionately believe that access to quality journalism shouldn’t be withheld from those who can’t afford it. 

At BRICKS, we have launched a membership subscription service that offers subscribers additional content or early access to content, and this allows us to keep our website free and accessible to all. It’s one of a number of possible solutions to the ongoing problems of financing journalism, and it’s what we believe is most appropriate for our audience. 

The debate that ensued online regarding The Sunday Times’ article raised many important questions, including if there’s such thing as ‘essential’ content, the media’s role in educating the electorate and if a media company’s reputation or history should impact its accessibility. Is it okay to share screenshots and archive links that bypass the paywall, or is this disrespectful to the journalists’ work? Should I have to give money to a publication with a well-documented transphobic history in order to access content holding our government to account? While we hope not to detract from the incredibly important and powerful content within The Sunday Times article, we believe that there is also an important conversation to be had about the state of contemporary online journalism and its access, especially now as we all heavily rely on the news during this uncertain time.

To discuss the issue, we asked journalists from within the BRICKS community and beyond to share their thoughts on the topic with us.

Do you believe ‘essential’ journalism should be held behind a paywall?

“As much as I agree with the idea of donations and paid subscriptions to support and maintain journalism and quality reporting, I do also believe that in many cases journalism is there to serve the public first and foremost, and it should be the quickest and most direct line for information to reach the general public,” says Hannah Sargeant, Editor-in-Chief of Mothership magazine. “The Sunday Times expose on the government’s lack of movement in the lead up to the outbreak in the UK is information I would deem essential and should be accessible en masse, no question. Creating a financial or logistical barrier to get this story out seems to defeat the purpose of the expose in the first place, which was clearly to highlight a whole batch of underreported truths to the nation that has been otherwise swept under the carpet.”

Journalist Charlotte Gush agrees: “This investigation and the Times’ reporting is essential and of public interest. I am no fan of paywalls (I’m no fan of capitalism; property is theft!), but they demonstrably do not stop essential reporting from getting into public hands. Yes, there are arguably naughty ways to get around the paywall, but there is also a legitimate way to get the information: read it elsewhere. Just because this is a Times report, doesn’t mean it isn’t reported on elsewhere; paywall-free on the Guardian, and the Byline Times Covid-19 timeline, published more than a week ago.

“People love to shout about ‘morals’ on the internet, but limited paywall-bypassing is an inevitable factor that the Times will have taken into account when deciding to implement that business strategy. Whether paywall-dodging will happen, whether it should happen, and whether it makes sense as a moral issue under the inequality of capitalist patriarchy are all quite different questions.”

“I believe, particularly when we are living in times of such uncertainty, it’s important to question why critical information that could provide us with more clarity should only be made visible to the privileged or financially stable?” says journalist Maggie Scaife. “We all deserve the right to equal access to educate ourselves about the world we live in, no matter our background or circumstances. Putting up a paywall, on this piece of intel in particular, provides an unbalanced proportion of news consumers with an unfair advantage which further divides us at a time in which we should be a collective. The Times should take responsibility for this and rethink their strategy.”

Meanwhile, journalist Jessie Williams suggests the essential nature of its content is the reason why quality journalism should be paid for: “I definitely think The Sunday Times investigation is of public interest – particularly in times like these when the government’s actions (or inaction) could mean life or death for a lot of people, which is why quality investigative journalism that holds the government to account is so important. But, I don’t think this should be used as a reason for it not to be behind a paywall, as it is precisely because of the paywall that the newspaper can afford to spend money on big investigations like this. Yes, I think as many people as possible should be able to read the piece – and most people can if they register on the website they get two free articles per month, or if people can afford to do so, buy the newspaper (it costs £2.90) and support the print industry. It is exactly this type of journalism that makes news outlets, both small and large, so vital in society – and I’m not just saying that because I’m a journalist.”

Poster by Wolfgang Tillman for the Dazed Art Project

Are paywalls the answer?

“The subscription model that has been popping up on the sites of almost every major news title platform and now smaller independent publications seems like a pretty good starting point,” says Hannah Sargeant. “Subscriptions enable those who can afford to subscribe to pay slightly more and upfront sums to do so, and by helping to keep the publication alive on a whole, it gives those who can’t afford to subscribe the opportunity to still access the information. I still feel like more needs to be done and a less unreliable system should be put in place, but I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps it lies with the creation of an external body purposed to support a range of media outlets across the political spectrum, that works closely with the government to gain unbiased financing that can be dispersed outwards. 

She continues: “On the topic of financing any kind of media content – I often worry about the side effects of asking the public to pay more and more for the journalism they read, when it used to cost a fraction of the amount to buy a paper, and in recent years many of us are already well acclimatised to accessing journalism and information online for free. It seems like commodifying something that was once largely free, is too much of a transition to expect to support the industry alone.  I also worry that if the journalism industry relies predominantly on subscription/membership models to function – of course it would be those from lower socio-economic backgrounds that would pay the biggest price – but it also creates such a vacuum for fake news taking flight online. If so many can’t afford, or are not personally invested enough in journalism but are still part of that demand for news and information, one of the most troubling side effects is that fake news and random online hearsay would take proper journalism’s place and have a potentially serious impact on society, in ways we’ve already began to see over recent years.”

Writer Caity Hennessy adds, “From my point of view, I am completely happy to contribute to the funding of journalists working for independent media, because I myself have been in the position having to leave roles at incredible publications because they lack the funding to offer all employees a sustainable living wage. However, I do feel that media funded by multi-million dollar companies which have thousands of dollars worth of advertising have the means to pay their employees the appropriate rate for the content they produce without the support of readers.”

Charlotte Gush says, “To my mind, the Times ought to have lifted the paywall on this article in their own self-interest – so they get the hits. A system where all information is hidden away from those who can’t or won’t pay for it is a bad system, but it is also an unsustainable system. If a news story is big enough, it will be reported on by lots of outlets; a practice that is as quotidian as it is vital in broad-spectrum public-interest reporting. The Times has a paywall, the Guardian took a different approach and set about recruiting subscribers without a paywall. Both have been qualified successes. I don’t think it’s primarily a moral argument, but a logistical one; and the pitfalls of maintaining a paywall are obvious in the context of a massive breaking news exposé. The truth will, largely, out.”

Are newspapers more responsible for educating the electorate and holding power to account than online-only publications, and does or should this affect their accessibility?

Hannah Sargeant says “I do believe that the most established and widely circulated newspapers are more responsible in educating the electorate than new media outlets. They have more access to everything, including primary sources for stories – access that most small titles aren’t able to get. What’s great is that so many new media outlets make it their priority to educate on various topics that inform their niche demographic of the electorate, regardless. But when thinking about power and money, the newspapers have a lot more to answer to and more responsibility; they should be doing more to prop up the conversation being had by smaller niche media titles, and perhaps by doing so they’d in-turn receive more subscribers from underrepresented groups in society too.”

Meanwhile, Caity Hennessy argues that all media outlets share this responsibility: “All media outlets have the capacity to sway voters opinions, we’ve witnessed this in several elections around the world during the past years, I think it’s come to a point where we need to revisit the journalism ethics and provide an unbiased array of content for the electorate to make their own minds up with the power of knowledge.”

Maggie Scaife explains that “as journalists, it is imperative we question and analyse the powers that be and their actions, behaviours etc to inform current and future voters. Ideally, any news/content producer, no matter their reach, should be held to the same standards and expectations when making information public. New media outlets should be treated with as much respect as long-standing newspapers and are equally responsible for educating their readers. No matter how old they are, a news organisation should strive to be forever changing and responsible for their image and reputation.”

“I think it’s very hard to generalise about this stuff,” says Charlotte Gush. “It depends on which outlets you mean, and I think the idea that they can all be neatly split into old and new media is flawed. Labour’s manifesto policy of free high-speed internet for all is a good example of trying to address inequality of access to information. The BBC having its news budget slashed is an access concern. Characterising the issue as a battle between old and new media is reductive, and misses a far more important point about access.”

With thanks to Hannah Sargeant, Charlotte Gush, Maggie Scaife, Caity Hennessy and Jessie Williams.