Some of you are angry. Every week, this reporter gets feedback along the following lines: "Why are you hiding that article behind a paywall?" or "How can you justify putting important information behind a paywall?"
Most major newspapers have put one up. Almost uniformly, it's a survival play. But there are still myths surrounding them. Here are five common ones I hear from readers and critics.
We can dispense with this one quickly. This column isn't long enough to go into the sorry recent history of newsonomics. But let's put it this way: the vast majority of newspapers have seen their revenue and profitability shrink over the last five to 10 years, whether they have a paywall or not. Almost none of the newspapers have replaced that depleted ad income with paywall revenue. So it's not a case of plutocrat owners rubbing their hands with glee at even more profit. It's a question of keeping the lights on. (And for some newspapers, even a paywall looks like it may be too late.)
This is a more interesting criticism. We journalists and politicians often go on about news gathering being important to democracy. Sometimes, we even argue for a public subsidy or some special regulatory position. But if it's so essential and worthy, how can we justify restricting it only to those who can pay? Actually, quite easily.
Ground-breaking news has always - yes, always - been paywalled. The paper in the shop with the government-ending revelation or the breakthrough investigation on public health was never, ever free.
Yes, you'll say, but a broadcaster might pick up that newspaper story and disseminate it more widely for free.
Free? Do you mean RTÉ? That'll be €160 per year, please. Payable in monthly instalments if you prefer. In fact, just like a subscription. (If you argue the technicality of requiring a television set under the law, you're missing the point here.)
"No, not RTÉ," you'll continue. "Other radio and TV stations."
This is a little harder to measure, because a 'radio station' goes from a community FM channel to a national commercial music station and everything in between. But most of them have one thing in common. With almost no exception, few can afford anything like the news-gathering or investigative resources that larger (paywalled) organisations have. Yes, they can host shows to discuss things that are already out there. But breaking news or investigations?
So we may not be comparing like-for-like on the issue of 'news gathering'.
To be clear, my colleagues in these organisations are some of the best in the business, utter professionals who do amazing work. But their financial ability to focus on items that aren't already being publicly parsed is, they will agree, limited.
This is not even to question what a 'station' is nowadays. Is there a major difference between a big, widely-listened to current affairs podcast and a radio show, for the purposes of this discussion? I know some who don't listen to radio at all but do listen intently to a folder of podcasts on their phones. We're into an infinitely sliding scale of when we talk about broadcast current affairs. Do they all constitute proof that 'news can be free'?
Away from the airwaves, one might turn to 'disruptor' online alternatives, like Joe.ie. Although it went into (and emerged from) examinership recently, it produced really excellent work - often spawning other news media pickups - in the run-up to the recent Irish and UK elections.
But free? I don't know. See that pop-up banner that says 'We Value Your Privacy'? Go ahead and hit the big 'settings' button before you reflexively click I agree. You'll see that it openly says it's harvesting your information and giving it to hundreds of middle-men ad companies (which you have to manually click off if you don't want them to know everything about you). Wonder why you sometimes see odd coincidences in what your phone seems to know about you? That's a big reason why. Yes, it's fair to say that virtually all media organisations do this too, on top of our paywalls or licence fees. But my point here is that if we didn't charge a subscription, it still wouldn't be free based on the hordes of data we're sucking up. There is genuinely a charge of sorts for your getting news.
To return to the ethical point of charging for valuable information in the first place, it's worth pointing out that not all important journalism from paywalled publishers is behind the subscription gate.
The recent Covid-19 coverage is a good example of this. Both the Irish Independent and the 'Irish Times' have frequently had some important, much-consumed Covid-19 news and information that was kept outside the paywall structures. There is little chance that basic, core information for citizens was denied due to a subscription charge.
But even if somehow that did happen, or if there was something of pointed importance to your particular community that is published behind a paywall (which usually means it's also in the print edition in a shop), here's my ice-cold rejoinder: you're not being denied anything, €2 to €3 for a paper in a shop, or €5 to €10 for a month's editions (with hundreds of stories) is not some sort of privileged barrier for the elite. I'll argue this point with anyone: it simply isn't exclusionary in any way. It's an utterly accessible structure.
This has simply never been true. The tentpole newspapers have built massive online subscription bases. 'The New York Times' now has six million online subscribers. The 'Financial Times'' internet customer base has long overtaken its offline newspaper sale. Even in Ireland, the 'Irish Times' has tens of thousands of paying subscribers, while the Irish Independent raced to around 25,000 paying subscribers within five months of its launch this year - three times the initial annual target.
Then there is the 'Business Post', the 'Times Ireland' edition and new entrants such as 'The Currency' (even if we have no guide as to how few or how many some of these subscription figures are).
And that's not to talk about a growing number of news and media services on the edges, such as many thousands of Irish Patreon subscribers (the sports podcast 'Second Captains' alone has over 12,000 paying monthly subscribers).
It is a fair question to say: 'Yes, but are the new industry's subscription levels comparable to print sales figures at their height?' No they're not. And they may never be, given the number of alternative platforms out there now. It's also true to say that some subscription levels are at a sufficiently low level to question their long-term relevance as sustainable rates, especially when ad revenue continues to fall. But the notion that paying for news or media is some sort bizarre idea that's out of step with this era is just factually wrong.
Sorry, no. Up until about 2015, you could make a really good, growing business from online ads and sponsored campaigns.
That was the engine behind global giants such as Mail Online and newcomers such as Maximum Media (Joe.ie). Then the online ad industry solidified into the duopoly we now have of Google (adwords, search and YouTube) and Facebook (including Instagram).
Many media types moan about this, but it was (and is) inevitable: these online platforms are just much better at targeting people efficiently with ads. Today, publishers that depend primarily on online ads are the ones that appear to be struggling the worst, financially.
Online ads are still very important to almost every newspaper. But their share of the pie looks likely to continue shrinking, faced with online platforms' targeting expertise.
'The Guardian' is the biggest proponent of voluntary contributions as an alternative to a paywall. It has had some success, surprising everyone by balancing its books in 2018. But this year, the UK newspaper's finances have fallen back badly again, with major job cuts announced.
In Ireland, 'The Journal' has adopted this reader donation approach. Since April, it has garnered over 5,000 contributions. We don't know what the value of this is, or whether they have any chance of being recurring payments rather than minor one-off gestures.
However, its CEO, Adrian Acosta, told me in recent weeks that this is expected to be one of the pillars of revenue for the organisation in future. (Funded campaigns for individual investigations, such as those done by 'The Journal''s 'Noteworthy' series, will also be important, he said.)
Reader donations are a less attractive route for most news publishers. Rightly or wrongly, some see it as a begging bowl.
But more importantly, we don't yet know if it's a long-term sustainable option.