Paying to keep it free!

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Democracies originated in relatively small societies involving elite (male) citizens who were able to engage in face-to-face conversations while deliberating upon something that was locally important. Decisions were taken by the majority (of elites) but without communication being mediated. It is but natural that most large countries historically were not democracies.

American Independence and the French Revolution began an era of democratic movements in the West and by the mid-Twentieth Century, outside of the Vatican, there was not a single absolute monarchy remaining in Europe. As colonies gained independence from European forces, most of them adopted some version of a democratic model for government formation. With democracy becoming widely adopted and populations growing, unmediated communication that formed the basis of democratic decision-making, even when that was limited to privileged elites, was no longer possible. As mediated communication became crucial, independent mass media began to be recognized as imperative to liberal democracy as well as to capitalism.

During the post-French revolution era, communication was primarily mediated by the newspapers and consequently, the Press was recognized as the Fourth Estate in France. In most other European democracies, the Press began to be referred to as the Fourth Power, after the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. Since mass media is no more limited to just the newspaper, one must add radio, television and the Internet to the list.

The growth in terms of both the scale and complexity of democracies and of the mass media has added layers to the role mass media plays today. On the one hand, it is supposed to be a watchdog that keeps a check on the three branches of the government as well as on all political agents, and on the other, it has to provide the information necessary for democratic decision-makers to act rationally. Hence, by its very nature, distorted information being mediated can result in democracies becoming dysfunctional. Not only do people require quality information to elect the right law makers, but in most cases, the elected representatives also need the mass media to know what the electorate wants from them.

One can say more or less the same things about the role independent media plays in market capitalism too. As a watchdog it brings out the excesses and the corrupt practices, and on the other hand, it makes the best practices well known, and accelerates the adoption of more efficient processes and products. Undistorted information can ensure that demand and supply gaps are correctly portrayed beyond immediate market geographies, making markets across more contestable and competitive.

In this context, the concept of ‘free’ media takes on interesting dimensions. While most newspapers in India have a token price, they are all heavily subsidized by advertising. The same is true with television as well. As for radio, there is hardly anyone paying even a subscription. Almost all newspapers and TV channels have a presence on the internet and most of the content there is advertisement driven.

If advertisers are the real customers for most of the media, then what is the relationship between the media houses and the news consumers? And, how does that play out in the functioning of democracies and markets?

Newslaundry, a web-based media channel in India, has a tagline that says, ‘Pay to keep news free’. Newlaundry belongs to a segment of news media that is paid for by the consumers of news and is devoid of advertisements. It is a segment that is now growing. There seems to be an increasingly aware segment of the population which is ready to pay to keep news free from advertiser or external influence.

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

In August 2010, an internet user with the screen name blue_beetle, who was later identified as Andrew Lewis, made that comment online, which went on to become one of the most cited in debates about free news. Richard Serra had conveyed something similar about TV way back in 1973: “It is the consumer who is consumed. You are the product of t.v.” So, the idea that if you are not paying for the media you consume, then you are being sold is not a new one. Implicit in it is the recognition that there is nothing really free and that if one is not paying money for it, then one is paying for it with some other resource, like time, the most limited and perishable resource one has. You may not be valuing your time, but it looks like the advertisers do!

The first online news media for which I ever paid was The Ken. A student friend of mine introduced me to it a couple of years ago. For someone like me who was always looking for well-researched articles and in-depth analyses, The Ken came across as a welcome change from most of the subsidized news I was consuming until then. And, add to it, there were no advertisements competing for my time. Later, when a well-respected journalist friend joined The Morning Context’s editorial team, I became a customer of the TMC too. Today, having got used to accessing in-depth and bold content on apps and websites that were designed keeping consumers like me in mind (and not content around ad placements), I now know that I was paying for free news with time and missed opportunities.

Globally, Scandinavian countries lead the market when it comes to paying for news. There are a good number of Americans who do so too, especially the ones who understand that good information is power and worth paying for. Then, there is the freemium model. A minority of the users who pay a premium for some add-on services subsidize the media consumption of the vast majority who choose the free option. On the other hand, private media houses in Britain (Eg. The Guardian) would rather seek donations to keep news media free of charges and off the dependence on advertising. So, there are a range of models out there that are attempting to keep the media independent.

Of course, by now, the reader must be wondering how many outlets one must be paying for to get multiple perspectives (which is, again, critical for democracy and capitalism) and where is the end to it. That is where subscription-based news bundling services like Inkl come in. Subscribing to Inkl gets you stories from the NYT or the WSJ on your mobile phones, but without really delivering the full experience of reading it and the connected stories on the newspaper’s page. Yet, it is, no doubt, better than relying on open platforms like Google or Facebook, which are designed to seek user engagements and sharp reactions. The algorithms on open platforms promote sensational news over quality content. The proverbial echo chamber they provide reduces the probability of contrarian views being heard and accentuates polarization by drowning out the middle-ground in a cacophony of extreme voices.

Since a lot of news today is consumed on social media, the business models of these platforms also call for scrutiny. Facebook’s is all about targeted advertisement based on personal data. The metadata churned out by Instagram and Facebook combined leaves very little to be guessed about the user. Yet, Facebook isn’t satisfied and would like the metadata from WhatsApp too to be added to the mix! Then, there is the freemium-plus customer-centric we-chat model from China, which makes money by providing additional value-added services for a fee. Twitter is now choosing to move to a simple freemium model. Signal, the most privacy-focused communication app currently, is purely relying on donations for funding.  While it has opted against the advertisement-driven model, Telegram is yet to decide between a freemium model and donations. The debates around these tell us clearly that, increasingly, some consumers are coming around to the view that what is free may not be free and when money is not paid, the real costs incurred could be higher.

That begs a totally different question: If quality information is indeed power, then are the advertisement-free models widening inequality further? If the awareness gap between a few who can and will pay for quality content and the vast majority who consumes what is given to them widens significantly, then how that affects the future of liberal democracy and capitalism is something that needs to be anticipated and countered actively.  I believe that answers to such questions are likely to emerge sooner than what most people think now. At this point though, we can be sure that quality journalism cannot be cheap and someone will have to pay for it.

Post Script: What about ‘free’ education? When a certain political or religious organization provides free education, is that education really free? Who is the customer and who is the product? Also, can the state in an autocratic country control the masses by providing ‘free’ education?

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