Newspaper stands on the street in New York City. (Shutterstock)
Newspaper stands on the street in New York City. (Shutterstock)

You are not paying to read this blog – it’s free to you, which some might say is fair value for the money. 

But you might already be paying to read the news online these days, as more daily newspapers erect paywalls for their content. And this trend matters to organizations such as think tanks, including CIGI, which rely in part – although not solely – on mass media to communicate their ideas to the worldwide public.

The Wall Street Journal has been charging a fee to online subscribers since the 1990s — it’s a model that works for them because many subscribers claim the service as a business expense. The New York Times raised its first paywall in 2010, and has been busy closing loopholes in recent months.

More recently, newspapers such as the Financial Times and The Globe and Mail have joined the club, with metered limits on free reading or a monthly subscriber fee – and others plan to do so soon, including The Toronto Star.

Of course, the model of paying for content is as old as newspapers themselves; same goes for books, movies, and recorded music. Before the Internet Age, audiences of traditional media found buying a printed newspaper as natural as buying a quart of milk. But the spread of technology led to the rapid rise of free content and even widespread content piracy, especially – at first – in music, through file-sharing.

I was in the newspaper business for 30 years and in the later years witnessed the many agonies of owners and managers over the decision whether to give away news for free online. Any major metropolitan newsroom might have cost from $10 million to $50 million to run in the 1990s (excluding giants such as the Los Angeles Times, which might have had 1,400 editorial employees at its peak). Print subscriptions paid for only one fifth of those costs, with the other four-fifths coming from advertising. Print readers were getting the news at a fraction of the true cost, thanks only to a major subsidy from the purveyors of consumer goods and services. The big question was: would free news websites cannibalize the business?

A rising generation of web-minded executives persuaded the proprietors to create free new websites, in the optimistic belief that web traffic would deliver a new wealth of advertising dollars; but the flaw in this scheme soon became evident. Full-page print ads, worth (say) $30,000 a page, were being exchanged for online display ads, worth (say) only $20 per 1,000 impressions, or less. Dollars were traded for pennies. Worse, entire categories of lucrative advertising, such as classifieds, evaporated completely to free online services. As the revenue leak turned into a torrent of red ink, newspapers around the years 2000-02 began a decade-long series of editorial cuts, laying off reporters and editors, chopping news pages and reeling back spending on bureaus, wire services, foreign travel and other critical investments in quality.

Here’s where other creators of content come in. Bloggers – and I’m a blogger, at this instant – pour many millions of words onto the web every week. But many bloggers on policy-relevant issues, such as the global economy or global security, are merely doing a riff on the daily news – which is still provided largely by those traditional media, with an ever-shrinking pool of reporters. Most non-newspaper bloggers are not at government buildings minding the budget-writing process, or interviewing the policy makers, or crouching at the front lines of war zones; they are sitting at their computers, dining and opining on the free news, for which the financial foundation is crumbling into a sinkhole.

This spells trouble for all of us. Mass media are channels for think tanks, including CIGI, to disseminate their research findings and recommendations into policy circles. Many think tanks have communications staff who measure and try to improve on these forms of outreach. CIGI, for example, tracks its “media mentions” (when CIGI experts are quoted in news stories), the number of editorial articles or “op-ed” columns that its researchers write and the traffic at its own website (unique visitors, pageviews, document downloads, video viewings, etc.). When newspapers erect paywalls – and heaven bless them for exploring innovative initiatives to save the vital business of journalism – it directly affects the size, nature and traffic patterns of the audiences that CIGI and others hope to reach.

There are, of course, other channels for think tanks to influence policy makers for the public good. Experts and researchers are sometimes invited to brief government officials in person, one-on-one or in gatherings at government buildings. As well, think tanks may convene conferences, then invite policy makers as observers or participants; this can be a sort of Track II diplomacy, in which experts from different parts of the world engage in a dialogue that helps the decision makers identify solutions.

So mass media are not the only game in town. But the media can also play a vital role in all of these processes – by widely sharing good policy ideas with the national, regional or global citizenry.

Aside from working through the media, think tanks can also appeal to the wider public through their own websites and content. All of CIGI’s research findings and publications are available to be read, online, for free – no paywalls – at www.cigionline.org.  As with traditional media, of course, someone is still subsidizing the content creation. In CIGI's case, this is not advertisers but rather public and private funders, including: the governments of Canada and Ontario, philanthropists including our chair and founder as well as other generous individuals, and co-funding organizations who form partnerships with CIGI for particular projects.

Internet users who enjoy seemingly “free” content online – whether it is news, the policy publications of global think tanks, or other goods – should be mindful of the fact that someone is always paying the bills. Journalism, research, expert commentary and advice: these are the creations of skilled people. Their work is meant to advance knowledge, inform society and support human progress; and all of that taken together should be seen as great treasure (which is very rarely free).

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.