Subscriptions are bad for democracy? No way

By Hamish from Substack

Some people think that subscription media is bad for democracy because it means only the wealthy can access good journalism. In October last year, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti argued that “the subscription model in media doesn’t support the broad public.” More recently, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, commenting on the rise of paid newsletters, said “there is an element of all subscription products that is in a sense anti-public.”

We believe the opposite.

A media business based on a practice where journalism is given away free is anti-public because it undermines the economic model that makes the media robust. News organizations in the US have been shrinking their operations, laying off reporters, and cutting back on editors, if not shutting down altogether. The news media as an entity is getting weaker, both financially and in terms of political influence. None of this is happening because of subscriptions. A key reason it is happening is because for the last two decades the bulk of journalism has been give away online for free, the ad business for anything other than social media platforms has imploded, and now even the best publications are struggling to find a sustainable business model.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of this weakening is that the powerful are more able to erode public trust in the media, just as the media’s ability to produce and disseminate reliable reportage is diminishing. President Trump’s efforts to destroy the media’s credibility have been aided by this destructive economic trend. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans (incorrectly) believe there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media, according to a recent Harvard-Harris poll. The end result here can be dire. The philosopher Hannah Arendt warned that when the media is weak, the powerful can use lies to overwhelm consensus. “[A] people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind,” said Arendt. “It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

In the US, these dangers have never been more present than in this era of “free” journalism. And yet the perception that subscriptions are a problem persists. It needs to stop. To believe that subscription media is anti-democratic is to believe that almost all printed media, from The Economist to the New York Times, were anti-democratic until they started to give away their journalism online in the 1990s. The Pentagon Papers; Watergate; My Lai—these stories were not originally reported for readers who got their newspapers and magazines for free. One must either disregard these stories (and many more) or dismiss the notion that subscription media is harmful to democracy.

In fact, when it comes to the potential for a strong independent media that benefits everyone instead of the few, the conditions have only improved since the days of Watergate and My Lai. Once an important story has been produced, there are many easy ways for it to reach people everywhere, even if it originated at a subscription-based outlet. It can reach a wider audience through TV reports, rewrites, aggregation, email, text messages, screenshots, podcasts, and social media summaries like Twitter Moments and Instagram Stories, to name a few. When a message needs to find an audience, we are better off than ever before.

But the distribution mechanisms don’t matter as much as the economic model that supports the production of journalism. Even if we were stuck with delivery only by trucks, it would still be better to live in a world where more people can be empowered to produce important stories than to depend on the few who can survive in a world where journalism is distributed for free; where journalists must meet traffic quotas and publishers must consider the interests of advertisers; where monopolistic tech platforms have outsized influence; where the world’s richest men spend a minuscule fraction of their largesse to become media titans; and where only the already-well-off can afford to pursue journalism as an occupation

The idea that subscription media is harmful to democracy might be attractive at first, but we must see through it. There is never reason for a journalist or publisher to feel guilt when asking readers to pay. The alternative is much worse.