The free-press must remain free… and that’s why we should pay for it

Keyboard warriors have united against news of the New Zealand Herald’s new paywall. Arguing that it is our given right to access news for free, claiming that media outlets are trying to rip us off, and bemoaning the cost of a weekly cup of coffee for access to quality news.

It’s stirring a wave of social arguments and quite frankly, it’s absurd. We need to think bigger.

When we refuse to pay for news, we undervalue the crucial role journalists play in our society. A well-funded media informs, entertains and empowers us. It holds power to account, articulates our social values and gives a voice to those who need it most. 

The reality is that it comes at a price.

Well-researched, carefully analysed news pieces take time. It requires expertise, fact-checking and editorial processes to ensure fairness, accuracy, balance and credibility.

We live in a subscription society. We pay for Netflix, Spotify and a spot in the cloud to store our holiday photos. Why shouldn’t we pay for our news too?

For generations, we accessed news only through a subscription to our daily paper. Just 20 years ago, paying for news was as normal as buying milk and bread. But suddenly we won’t stand for it?

Many of the people complaining about the New Zealand Herald’s decision probably are also concerned with the influx of clickbait and fake news. The paywall encourages fair payment for good content and represents a path forward for great journalism, and the antithesis of clickbait.

We need perspective, this isn’t the landmark announcement that the Twitter-brave claim it to be. Yes, it will have an impact for many Kiwis, but the media landscape is changing and business-as-usual is not an option. This is what evolution in media looks like. To those who feel affronted, recognise that this is just another evolution of the communications and media landscape in New Zealand and I expect there will be more changes to come before the year is out.

Let’s not forget that paywalls aren’t new. International media giants and local publications like NBR and Newsroom have operated paywalls for years. It’s a wonder the New Zealand Herald didn’t do it sooner.

So, will this have a significant impact on the PR and media relations industry? No, I don’t think it will.

There will always be an audience for clickbait and fake news – but at least New Zealanders will know that the content behind the paywall is credible and can be trusted. We can’t underestimate this in the digital world where everyone with internet access is a publisher and unresearched content is frequently passed off as ‘news’.

The paywall provides an opportunity for the media relations industry to tailor pitches more accurately. In the same way that gaining coverage in particularly high-calibre publications has always been recognised as quality PR, media relations pros will lift their game knowing the honour of landing coverage beyond the paywall.

The paywall will separate audiences and much as it separates content. Those who pay for quality content will be the ones who are most motivated to engage with it – a win for journalists, publishers, clients, PR people and readers themselves. We must never be afraid to raise the bar.

It was 17 years ago that Pead PR ran the ‘Burn and Get Burnt’ campaign for Recorded Music New Zealand showing what piracy was doing to the Kiwi music industry. As part of the campaign, I had heated conversations with certain journalists who were adamant that access to music should be free. At the time, I argued we needed to protect the value and told them their words would come back to haunt them.

I am sad to see that the fourth estate now faces similar challenges in terms of consumer expectations and recognition of value. I applaud the courage of the New Zealand Herald and other outlets for taking the hard road and charging for their very best work.

We are privileged to have a free press in New Zealand, but Kiwis need to understand that free press doesn’t mean free-of-charge – it means free from government control. If information really is power, then we need to support our journos to the hilt.

A free press isn’t free: it’s on us to pay for it.

  • Deborah Pead is the founder and chief executive of Pead PR.

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