On paywalls and journalism as a public service

When Superstorm Sandy began ravaging New Jersey and New York, The New York Times and other publications took their paywalls down.

The information was considered too vital to withhold. Would you really tell someone experiencing the worst natural disaster of his lifetime that you won’t tell him important information about what is going on or about recovery efforts unless he gives you a credit card number? These newspapers with paywalls/pay meters couldn’t bring themselves to withhold information important to safety and even general knowledge about such an event.

And this got me thinking about the NYT’s role the rest of the year (and other news organizations contemplating paywalls/pay meters). Is not the information they publish of public importance? Is it not information that they would want as many people as possible to read and be educated about? Surely The New York Times has information too valuable to a functioning democracy and civil society other times of the year.

The merits of paywalls and pay meters as ways to financially support journalism is another topic altogether, and in general I like the NYT’s porous pay meter structure. What concerns me, however, is the impact that these restrictions on news will have on the public, public opinion, public knowledge and ultimately journalism as a public service.

Superstorm Sandy poised an immediate physical threat to many readers of the NYT. The financial collapse is more ethereal albeit it may have affected many NYT readers much more deeply than Sandy and may have effects on our democracy for generations to come. Fiscal cliff negotiations were also not considered vital enough to lift the NYT pay meter for, despite most Americans being generally ignorant about what was going on. And the latest updates from our foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may cost American taxpayers $4 billion dollars in direct costs and future liabilities and have already taken more than 5,000 lives of U.S. soldiers, are not considered important enough to go sans-pay meter.

How do we draw the line as to what information is so important to a functioning democracy and society that we don’t put it behind paywalls and pay meters? Is it only if civilian safety is at immediate risk? Or is it when editors themselves directly feel the effects of a story?

Looking around nytimes.com, one can find plenty of articles and features that aren’t public service. Certainly what happens in the Style section doesn’t need to be seen, no matter how interesting it is to many of us. Nor is what happens in the sports and tech sections and many other areas of the site.

Major newspapers have always been a mix of general interest content and public interest journalism. I propose that news outlets should consider making public interest journalism more freely available, and that a paywall/pay meter should be able to be more porous for public interest journalism.

I would even be willing to pay money to the NYT for war coverage and other public interest journalism, but I would want it to be open for everyone. I already do this with Wikipedia. I donate $100 a year to the site to help keep it free and ad-free, and I’m much more likely to continue that yearly donation if Wikipedia keeps its pages open to everyone throughout the world for free.

The NYT could keep their paywall for access to general interest, opinion and multimedia parts of the site, while keeping public interest journalism open to everyone. People like myself could donate money to the NYT to keep these sections and beats open to the public. Perhaps we could even donate to individual beats and sections.

As a non-New Yorker, I don’t care that much about the education beat, but many in New York City care very much about that. People in the New York area would largely be the supporters of that beat, while foreign war reporting would be something that people all over the world are interested in helping to support.

I donate to Wikipedia because I use the site frequently and believe that my nearly-day use should be supported by money. I also donate to Wikipedia because I know many people, children and students wouldn’t be able to afford Wikipedia if it required a monthly or yearly subscription to access its information. The information contained within many of Wikipedia’s pages is too important and educational to be hidden away for only some to read.

The same is true of many news organizations. Yes, much of journalism isn’t public service and opinion pieces and thought pieces don’t need to be free. I’m not arguing against asking people to pay for content and journalism, but I am arguing that some journalism is too important to restrict to only those with means.