Weekly Update and the growing problem of paywalls

Every week, Canadian Atheist Weekly Update provides a collection of links to stories, editorials, and other items of interest to Canadian atheists. It’s been running almost without a break for almost two years now, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

However, in the two years it’s been running, there have been an increasing number of major news websites erecting paywalls. In plain English, they have been blocking their content unless you pay a fee.

Until now, WU’s policy has been to refuse any links behind “hard” paywalls – links that are completely inaccessible without paying – but to allow links to “soft” paywall sites. “Soft” paywall sites allow you access to a certain amount of articles before making you pay for more.

It wasn’t a great solution, but it was a solution.

Unfortunately, things have gotten progressively worse. When it was just US sites like The New York Times, it wasn’t that big a deal; in most cases, better coverage of anything Canada-related was available. However, more and more of Canada’s major news sources are putting up paywalls. Just this month, the Toronto Star has become the latest.

I don’t disagree with paying for journalism. In fact, I enthusiastically agree that quality journalism should be funded, and is very much worth paying for.

The problem here is simply an issue of logistics. Canadian Atheist cannot afford to pay for dozens and dozens of different news outlets to cover the vast geological and topical range of issues we cover. We cannot afford to pay for general newspapers in Charlottetown, Edmonton, Fredericton, Halifax, Québec City, Regina, St. John’s, Toronto, Victoria, and Winnipeg… and that’s just to cover the provincial capitals, not even touching the territories, other major population centres like Calgary, Hamilton, or Saskatoon, or even Ottawa! And that’s without considering specialized sources for things like LGBTQ issues, First Nations issues, and science, all of which are frequently entangled with religion.

I do not object in principle to featuring paywalled stories on WU and leaving it up to readers to decide if they want to pay for the content. It even makes good economic sense for the sources – depending on the story, CA can direct anywhere from hundreds to thousands of readers to their site. But if I can’t read what a link points to, I can’t recommend it.

So starting this week, Weekly Update will no longer be featuring or accepting any links that are blocked by paywalls, including “soft” paywalls. We will still feature links with “nag” messages – that is, pop-ups or temporary screens asking for your support – so long as the full content is available without too much hassle.

I am not happy about this for several reasons. First, it means that we won’t be able to feature some stories on major Canadian news sites that may have had massive impact to Canadian atheists over the past week (but we may have a way around that! we’re working on it!). More importantly for me, though, is that it will mean less diversity in the sources we feature on WU. I have always made it a point to consciously select stories from a diverse range of sources, to avoid ideological bubbles and echo chambers. I will continue in that vein, even though the options are becoming increasingly limited.

For those who contribute links: If you have a wicked story to share, please try to find a link to a source that does not block its content in any way. There are plenty of sources like that (not least being the CBC).

(Note that all this applies to Weekly Update only. The “This Week in Canadian ___” articles from In-Sight Publishing are separate, and have their own policies.)

And please do support journalists and media sources who don’t hide their stories behind paywalls, to encourage them to continue to publish paywall-free.

6 thoughts on “Weekly Update and the growing problem of paywalls

  1. I wonder if a solution (from the CA visitor side) is to simply note paywalled content through a ($) symbol or something? It doesn’t help you as editor read the content without subscriptions but if there’s no other source (or if it’s the first or best source on an issue) it might be a partial compromise. Although it also sounds like you have something else in the works.

    • That’s not a bad idea, actually. The content of paywalled story items could simply be “[Paywall]” or something like that (or even just “$” with a link to a post describing what’s up), and if there’s any info I have about it (like if I’m actually subscribed so I can see it myself) I can add to that. That would make it possible to at least reference interesting sources, even if I can’t review them and/or most readers can’t read them.

    • I’ll still post soft paywalls to our social media. If a newspaper has that many good articles, it deserves the traffic and potential new subscribers. I couldn’t possibly leave out the Toronto Star.

      • The Star is the one that hurts the most. It allows 5 articles a month… I get twice that many sent to me a week. Most are duplicates (as in, different articles, same story), but still.

        But I’m figuring that now that they’re paywalled, that will probably stop naturally anyway. People aren’t going to share articles they don’t see, and the only people who are going to see Star articles are the tiny few who pay for them… and the set intersection of those people and people who regularly send in articles is probably not all that big.

  2. I agree with what others have said. In addition, people could send you multiple links to the same story is there is good stuff behind the paywall and the free link gives the basics. (If the free link is better, than only one is required.)

    Are you thinking of going with no hard paywalls, and soft paywalls with an indication that it’s a soft paywall?

    • It would be nice if I could rely on getting multiple people to send me interesting links, and use that to gauge interest. But generally, I get links from mostly one person… if that (most links I get come from being mentioned by other secular/humanist/atheist groups or sources). I do try to chase down alternate takes on things, if only to get a diversity of voices represented in WU, and now I’ll be chasing down free/open takes where necessary and possible.

      If I’m going to mark up paywalls, I don’t think I’ll bother to differentiate. Speaking from past experience, it’s very rare to get a link to a hard paywall – only one person ever did it, but did it repeatedly, to some opinion piece writer named “Erasmus” in the New York Times (I think; I may be misremembering). Never actually got to read any of “Erasmus’s” stuff, because I certainly ain’t paying for the New York Times.

      So I think only soft paywalls are going to be an issue, because people might stumble on a story despite not generally checking the source, and for them it’s article 1 of 5 for the month… but for me I’ve long blown past the limit. Those are the situations that are going to be problematic.

      The worst-case scenario that I’m concerned about is someone sending me a link to some ostensibly secular/rational/skeptical source… but I’m blocked from reading it because of a paywall, so I just trust that the source is legit… and then it turns out that it was one of those pieces arguing that Muslims are all secretly terrorist sleepers just waiting for the Muslim Brotherhood to give them their activation codes, or that feminism ruins everything, or that male circumcision is literally the Holocaust or… you know, one of those fucking stupid takes that are depressingly all-too-common nowadays in ostensibly secular/rational/skeptical sources.

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