Or perhaps the question should be “were they ever relevant at any point of time?”
Recently I was checking for news about the ongoing political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka and came across a couple of articles that were behind paywalls. Needlessly to say I simply went on to click other links. In this day and age, I just don’t understand how this technique will generate revenue. If I don’t get the news from one source, I just click another link. The explosion of alternative media has ensured that there are a wide range of choices to get news and opinions from. It’s long past the era when one got the latest news from traditional newspapers like The Hindu or Times of India. Today you have these traditional media houses begging for subscriptions to keep them alive, appealing to support “free and fearless journalism.” Well, unless you offer really unique or specialized knowledge that is not available elsewhere, such tactics will fall flat.
While I don’t have any stats, I am sure that paywalling isn’t a successful business model. In an era of dwindling attention spans, getting people to read long-form text content is hard enough, while it’s just trivial to get the same news from some other free source. Also opinion pieces aren’t really worth subscribing to, even if they do come up with click-bait titles and clever previews.
I am divided about this: while I don’t necessarily trust traditional media to indulge in ethical journalism, I don’t want a world where Google, Facebook and Twitter have a stranglehold on delivery of digital content, including news, and monopoly on revenue generated from such content. At the same time, traditional media houses cannot simply use emotive tactics to get people to give them money. We’ve seen how this larger conflict between traditional media and tech giants has played out, with some countries such as Australia legislating that tech giants pay for news content and Canada also proposing a law for revenue sharing between tech giants and traditional news houses, with other countries likely to consider such legislation. It seems fair that when tech giants such as Google and Facebook make money from advertising off content they didn’t create, they must be asked to share the revenue generated from such advertising with the content creator. How effective such legislation will be in the long term remains to be seen of course.
I can well understand that online alternate media has made it difficult for traditional print media to survive and subscription is a tempting revenue source, but even so, charging for access to digital news content from end users does not seem the way forward.