In today’s digital age, further bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic’s widespread and various limitations, Americans turn to online news sources more than any other type of outlet. However, complementing this rise in popular societal attitudes is an increasing number of publications implementing differing levels of subscription-based plans. If you’ve ever tried accessing an online news story, likely from a larger national brand, you’ve probably run into paywall — requiring the eager yet unsuspecting reader to purchase this informational good just like any other. Although a number of factors could influence someone to subscribe to an online publication, the leading reasons include a belief in the publication’s “better quality” information as compared to free sources, and the desire to “help fund good journalism.” As noted in Reuters Institute’s 2020 Digital News Report, “In the competitive nature of the U.S. market, with multiple publications chasing subscription schemes, subscribers are more aware of [the] value” of information. As many news outlets often cater to similar demographics and report current events in a similar way, interested individuals technically have many options to indulge in. But through publications’ conflicting perspectives and one’s own perception of “good” and “quality” journalism, more than just a doable price tag sways the soon-to-be customer unsure about a subscription commitment. Accordingly, the existence of online paywalls not only heightens a sense of scarcity of reliable information in America, but fosters greater competition among different publishers, as well as between the average American and the current events enthusiast. The public nature of the news has turned into a commodity to buy and sell, as the acquisition of knowledge is modeled in the image of market-based competition.
To be clear, online news consumers are not as “unsuspecting” as they once were when confronted with restricted online accessibility mediated by subscription requirements. Considering the exponential growth of American subscription-based media culture in the last decade, it may be unsurprising to find that 20 percent of all Americans pay for their news as compared to the 16 percent seen last year. While a majority of those paying for their news only subscribe to one source, these few successful publishers raking in the highest share of consumers are often the most expansive, national brands. This “winner-takes-most” model is reflected in the Reuters Institute report’s finding that “around half of those that subscribe to any online or combined package in the United States use The New York Times or The Washington Post.” Although paid news aggregators like Apple News+ are still relatively popular, they’re certainly not as common as subscriptions to singular, dominating news brands.
It’s worth emphasizing that the online news brands having the most success with paid subscription models are notoriously left-leaning. Despite widespread penny-pinching in the wake of the pandemic, both The New York Times and the Atlantic actually had substantial increases in digital subscribers. The New York Times even suspended its paywalls in March after facing righteous criticism, for around two months at least. Although studies have shown that CNN is the most trusted news source for Democrats, there are countless others with a similarly high percentage of accepted reliability. Notably trailing closely — ordered by decreasing percentages of leftist trust — are NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, PBS, The New York Times, the BBC, MSNBC, The Washington Post, NPR and Time Magazine. Conversely, Fox News is the most relied-upon source for any right-leaning American, but the key distinction is that this favoritism has made Fox News the most trusted Republican source by a long shot. Out of the entire group, 65 percent claim to put their trust in Fox News, followed by less than half as many who rely on Sean Hannity’s radio show and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in a close third spot. Predictably, the most-trusted news sources for the left wing are the absolute least-trusted ones for the right wing, and vice versa. Nonetheless, the main takeaway is that essentially, online news presence and its steadily rising commoditization is a leftist’s game.
The increase in the proportion of Americans who pay for any type of online news source has been dramatic since 2014 for two main reasons. The first bump in subscription growth occurred right after Trump’s election, when many young and/or left-leaning voters sought more “reliable” publications to stay on top of the never-ending political drama. The second increase encompasses both political parties as, due to the pandemic, Americans began fully immersing themselves in COVID-19 coverage. The foundation which influences these subscription trends comes from a deeper reasoning than just convenience or finding “good” journalism worthy of support. Taken together, these two reasons for surges in American news consumption have reinforced greater partisan pressures spawned from the antagonistic relationship between the distrust of public service media and wariness toward polarized politicians from both sides of the political spectrum.
Although distrust in the news media has soared to historic heights worldwide, this issue’s sentiment is transparently reflected in both left- and right-leaning groups in the United States. The severity of this distrust is far from equal, as 39 percent of left-leaning voters believe they can trust the news overall but only 13 percent of right-leaning voters agree. Despite a silent majority of Americans who still prefer “objective” journalism amid our greater polarized landscape, the proportion of those who want their news to coincide with their personal views is still significant. When asked the question, “Thinking about the different kinds of news available to you, do you prefer getting news from sources that share/challenge/have no point of view?” 60 percent of Americans chose no point of view, compared to the 30 percent wanting a shared view, and the last 10 percent wishing to be challenged. Primarily shaped by the people at the forefront of ideological extremity, the proportion of strong partisans has been steadily rising since 2013. Clearly, a substantial number of Americans have conceptualized the news’ “truth” and their personal “point of view” as carefully entwined principles, if not entirely synonymous.
Essentially, with levels of societal distrust for most news media running rampant, further fragmenting our deeply politically polarized country, the last thing that’ll help either situation is constructing obstacles to news accessibility. Obviously, some people are still going to desire only hearing their news from ideologically aligned representatives, but the fact still stands that a majority of Americans don’t. Preferences within and between both the left wing and right wing concede enough as to allow the possibility for truly objective media — except without the price tag. “Reliable” journalism shouldn’t have to be viewed through the lens of a party identification, nor should it be constructed as a type of club necessitating membership to access. In a historically “Red Scare” world superseded by “fake news” and commanding capital as king, it’s not enough to just separate the facts from fiction, but halt the production of knowledge inequality in its tracks.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a senior majoring in political science.