A very long time ago, Pierre Proudhon wrote that “property is robbery”. I wonder what he would have thought of “monetization”. The Hamilton Spectator, like the New York Times and so many others, is instituting a ‘paywall‘. This programming will block users from viewing more than a certain number of articles each month (35 right now) and then prompt them to pay an extra fee ($2.95 for subscribers, $6.95 for others.

My first reaction was to cringe. If you have raccoons in your attic or other various critters around your property, there are ultrasonic devices you can buy which drive them away. If your attic is instead infested with internet users, ask them for their credit card numbers. The internet is (still) a dark and shady place, and the risks of identity theft and similar crimes make a $3 purchase seem kinda silly. Any kind of billing information presents these risks, and rational or not, it’s going to turn people off. Then, of course, there’s the people who just don’t have a credit card, or the money.

The second glaring problem is that like most paywall software, it doesn’t actually prevent the page from loading – it just loads the paywall on top of it. So getting around the system is dead simple. They’re using the Press+ pass, and at this point you can download a Firefox extension to bypass it, as well as tweaking NoScript or simply viewing the page source and reading it directly from the HTML script (not hard, it’s all in one block).

What’s the fundamental problem here? It’s a step in the wrong direction. The internet is an incredible resource, and online access to newspapers is an important part of that. Spectator articles going back many years have been online for ages with academic databases (for those who can access it), as well as readily available on microfilm at the Central Public Library for anyone to read. This data is out there and in many cases already digitized, however the newspapers keep their online selection very limited for the public, in order to “encourage print subscriptions”. Unfortuantely, other than cutting $4/month off the cost of accessing their website, subscribing doesn’t really grant you any archive access. This sort of information is crucial to both today’s issues and local history, and making it less accessible is only driving ignorance. In so many ways, it would be cheaper and easier to simply open up the archive without attempting to “monetize” it, then reap the benefits of the much larger traffic flow as a result. It’s not like they don’t already have a large advertising department.

Being a newspaper, especially when you’re a town’s only newspaper, is a matter of public trust. While it’s important to stay afloat financially, it’s at least as important to serve the public. When financial motives start clouding that vision, news outlets lose credibility fast. Large newspapers have made a lot of noise over the last decade about how they’re suffering at the hands of alternative media (like the dreaded “blogger”), who aren’t “real jouranalists”. One wonders what would have happened if they put that kind of effort into the Bush Administration’s claims about WMDs in Iraq, or any of the other “hard news” stories which have been replaced, so often, by fluff pieces and advertising. As for “alternative media”, if they really don’t feel we’re “journalists”, then why do so many Spectator stories pick up on news from Raise the Hammer, (the late) Mayday Magazine or the ongoing exploits of Matt Jelly? If professional journalists (and major media corporations like Torstar) are suffering so badly, why not try some actual journalism?