The Great Filter of American media


It is the 5th of August, and I have noticed that I’ve already run out of access to ‘free’ articles on various newspapers around the country. I like to check in on the Seattle Times now and then, since that’s my hometown paper, but I’m remote enough that I don’t think it’s worth subscribing…which means that if something happens there at any time in the month other than the first few days of the first week, I’m not getting it from a local source. I think I almost certainly have a few free articles left in the NY Times, but that’s because I despise that paper and only get anything from them when I am surprised by an unlabeled link.

I’m in a privileged position with respect to science articles, since I have access to institutional subscriptions through my university, but even there there are a lot of journals I can’t read. We’ve also got the Elsevier problem, where one greedy publisher buys up rights to a few essential journals and then only lets libraries subscribe if they buy a package that includes a lot of drecky bad journals.

Nathan Robinson has seen the situation clearly: The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.

Then we wonder why the public is so poorly educated on current events and science. I am particularly appalled that we tax everyone twice on science: once to do the state funded research, which we then immediately turn over to for-profit publishers, who then demand that the public pay them, the middlemen, to read the results. They’ve even got scientists hoodwinked into doing all the reviewing of papers for free, and often into paying to have their own work published.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, to be fair there are quite a lot of sources of reliable information that are free. CNN, ABC and CBS are just as free as Fox. They give you plenty to object to but they’re reality based. There’s Vox, which has a lot of good in-depth explainers. Your local TV news web site is free, doesn’t make up for the lack of local newspapers but it will give you the basics of what’s going on. There are some decent magazines, e.g. Slate. I could go on but maybe other people want to nominate reliable, accessible info sources.

  2. Jason Nishiyama says

    I find if I clear out the browser cookies on my computer, I suddenly get more free views.

  3. says

    Also regarding open access scholarly journals: I’m a PLOS ONE academic editor. Yes, you have to pay to publish, that’s how it’s financed, but the idea is you put that expense in your grant budgets. And we make it very cheap for scholars in low income countries. A lot of people choose to publish important work in PLOS because everybody can read it. There are scammers out there with predatory journals but legitimate open access publishing is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Other respectable open access publishers include Biomed Central, and Dove Press.

  4. stroppy says

    Pet peeve of mine, trying to sort through Twitter hashtags and side links to track down a source only to end up at a paywall, if anywhere. Speaking as a ranting senior citizen, twitters go #### yourselves in the hashtags.

    @1
    True but it’s a step down. They don’t always provide the same scoops, finer points or analysis.

  5. arensb says

    Here’s a thought. Probably not an original one.
    We have PayPal, which allows you to buy from any number of small businesses without having to create an account for each one. We have Disqus, which allows you to comment at a bunch of sites without having to create an account for each one.

    So can this be extended to news sites? Say $20/year gets you 50 articles a month, across all news sites in the network. Not too different from how you can buy a basic cable TV package for a fixed price, and watch any channel you like.

    Obviously, people will game the system: if your $20 is spread to each site in proportion to the number of articles you’ve read from that site, they’ll break stories down into one-paragraph units, so you have to read 10 “articles” to get the whole thing. Other systems will lead to other abuses; people will optimize for whichever metric you use, as we’ve seen with Amazon’s unlimited-reading program, whatever it’s called.
    But this doesn’t seem like an insurmountable problem. For one thing, these commercial sites will still have to compete with both free media and “get three free New York Times articles a month” programs, whatever those turn out to be. That is, if commercial news sucks more than free news, people won’t buy it.

  6. blf says

    The Grauniad (link is to the States edition), Al Jazeera (English), France24 (English), and the BBC.

    There’s an additional annoyance of some States-side news sources for those of us in the EU: Misunderstanding the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). People geolocated as in the EU are either blocked entirely or redirected to minimal sites. What such incompetent sites overlook is the GDPR applies to EU residents whether or not they are currently in the EU, so the geolocation-based blocking is absurd (and, of course, vistors to the EU are also banned by such incompetent sites).

    (Yes, I know there are technical workarounds for both the problem in the OP and the above problem!)

  7. F.O. says

    Democracy requires informed citizens but information comes only on a for-profit basis.

    How’s that working out for ya?

  8. Rob Bos says

    Incognito mode gets past a lot of those paywalls. Firefox has a “reader view” (little icon on the right end of the URL bar, looks like a letter, or ctrl-alt-R) that also sometimes works since it toggles off a lot of UI elements, one of which is often the article mask.

  9. says

    Also with Microsoft News you will be able to read any articles linked there without paying for them. I find many (not all) articles from the GDNYT and the Wash Post that way.

  10. asclepias says

    Indeed. I’ve been saying this for some time. I write a blog on science issues (sciencefornonscientistsblog.wordpress.com for anyone who’s interested), and discovered the joys and frustrations of Google Scholar. I only read the articles I can get for free, but there are so many tantalizing articles that I can’t get. I honestly don’t think anyone should have to pay for that information because researchers do it so that everyone can know about it. I also find it interesting which papers catch the attention of the mainstream media. I just wrote about insect declines, and discovered that the paper that initially caught the media’s attention (Hallman et al) is a rewrite of research that the same author had done with different statistics, and it has been much criticized within the entomological world for looking at species biomass rather than species richness and for committing the “popcorn error”–expanding the conclusion from research done on a reserve in Germany to include the whole world. Note that the criticism does not disagree with the conclusion, but with the details. Of course, if Fox News knew about this, they would interpret criticism of the original idea as invalidating the researh completely. I guess I’m bemoaning scientific illiteracy as well as the bility to access the research. I just read your post to my dad (a world-weary certified wildlife biologist who spent 32 years working for the State of Wyoming, and was eventually forced into retirement because the wildlife commission couldn’t stand being criticized), who said, ‘Yup. Knowledge is power, so you gotta pay for it.”

  11. numerobis says

    The journal bundle thing, much like the cable bundle thing, mystifies me.

    Why go through all the trouble making those dreck journals when people are really just buying the ones they actually want and have zero value on the dreck? The editors (and cable operators) could cut costs by just ending the dreck, and still charge arms and legs.

  12. KG says

    Also regarding open access scholarly journals: I’m a PLOS ONE academic editor. Yes, you have to pay to publish, that’s how it’s financed, but the idea is you put that expense in your grant budgets. – cervantes@3

    Too bad if you’re an independent researcher, huh?

  13. says

    Well, if your work is creditable enough to get accepted by a subscription journal, nothing is stopping you. And you must be financing your research somehow — the PLOS publication fee is a tiny fraction of the cost of most studies.

  14. robro says

    Seconding #2’s browser cache clearing approach. That’s what I do if I want to see a paywall blocked story, particularly on the NYT or WaPo. It does get tedious. Depending on the story or the amount of sunshine…I can’t tell…NYT might require deleting their caches for every view. But I’ll often hunt for alternative sources for the same story, and can usually find them.

    Another popular approach here in the socialist liberal nirvana of Northern California is through the public library. Both the SF and Marin public library systems provide free access to the NYT, WaPo, and possibly other news sources. There’s some rigamarole you have to go through each time, but you can get to it if you really want. Seems like the university library system should provide such amenities.

  15. says

    As someone pointed out above, Incognito Mode often gets past the article view limits. Another option that usually works (unless they’re going by IP address, sometimes) is changing browsers. I keep Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and IE on my machine for a variety of reasons (including compatibility issues), and often switching to the next browser down the line gets me past the view count problem. If you have multiple machines or a tablet, that can help even more (e.g., reading via different iPad browsers instead of your main computer).

  16. nifty says

    I’ll add my support to several previous favorable mentions of the Guardian-, it is still one of the only ways to see what was/is happening about Covid outside of the US.

  17. gyreandgimble says

    WMD KITTY “ paywalls should be illegal.”
    Why? Should print newspapers be free?

  18. KG says

    cervantes@15,

    Sure, I can (and do) publish in subscription journals, but the key journal in my area, which is open access and used to be free to publish in as well, now charges a whacking great fee. My research itself is not expensive, given a computer and access to journals (I get the latter from an honorary research post, but that won’t last forever) and what expenses there are, I’ve met out of my pension. (I’ve just gone back into employment, don’t know yet how much the grant allows for publication costs.) My grudge is that much of the work for publishing in any journal is done for free by editors (in some cases), researchers and reviewers, while journal publishers make fat profits for doing sod-all. I think the whole journal publication model is long overdue for burial, but the pressure on academics to publish in “high-impact journals” keeps it alive.

  19. davidnangle says

    The internet started out free, and after a little while, it costs. That’s understandable in this culture. But it’s the paywalls on truth and free firehoses of lies that matter here.

    The internet must have been hated by the evil powerful from the beginning, in anticipation of activism and facing up to dictators, criminals, strip-miners of every imaginable resource… So they’ve seen an opportunity to destroy the internet. Just by turning it into shit.

  20. blf says

    @25, And is an example of a site which misunderstands the EU’s GDPR (see @6): I geolocate to within the EU, so it is Unavailable For Legal Reasons.

  21. sdeinbinder says

    If you use a different browser (Chrome instead of Firefox) your identity is new so you can see the ‘freebies’. Or at least, I can – can others?

  22. gddiver says

    If you still use any apple products, apple news allows you to chose the Seattle Times as a channel. You do not get the entire paper but it does help expand the number of articles you can read.

  23. Trickster Goddess says

    I have found that if you copy and paste the headline from a paywalled article into a search engine, there is a good chance you will find the article republished on another site.

  24. David says

    If you copy a paywalled link, then type outline.com/ in your address bar and paste the link after it, it will generate a viewable version of the page. The following is a recent example of a link I used:

    outline.com/https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/08/04/what-will-trump-do-win-here-are-nine-possible-october-surprises-one-november-surprise/

    Or you can go to outline.com and paste the link in a dialogue box and hit Create Outline.

    Some sites block this service.

    Another alternative is to use private browsing/incognito mode, which blocks the cookies that the sites use to track how many free articles you have used.

  25. wsierichs says

    As much as paywalls irritate me, I fully understand why news media do it. It costs money to pay for reporters, editors, staff people to run your office, internet site etc. Media can’t do this stuff for free. They have to make income somehow. And the more they rely on advertisers, the more power advertisers have over them. (I’m not even getting into the power that wealthy sociopaths – such as a certain Bezos I won’t name – have over the big mass media.) I was a newspaper reporter/editor for 40 years, so I know about what it takes to get a newspaper out. If you find a news site you like and have some trust in (It’s difficult to trust any of them today, but the levels of dishonesty and bias, usually rightwing, are variable.) then support it financially.

  26. susans says

    How many of you expect reporters to work for free? What about editors and the rest of newspaper staff? Will you tell those who clean the news organization offices to volunteer their time or work in their place?

  27. says

    My institution is typical in subscribing to journals in bundled lots and they don’t have a bad selection. Unfortunately yhe journals tend to be weighted in a direction that fits the views of most of the academics and contrary vies are rarely seen i am of course referring to journals in the social sciences but even the science journals have some strange choices. Worse still key journals such as Science and those from the Nature stable are accessible but access is embargoed till 1 – 2 years after publication unless you are willing to pay through the nose. As far as pay walls for mainstream media are concerned most Australian print media are owned by Murdoch and thankfully are hidden behind paywalls which acts as an extra barrier to their toxic crap. The publicly funded broadcaster is gradually being strangled by an extreme conservative government who have sacked its board and many of its news and current affairs programs with Murdoch clones and mouthpieces. The trouble with accessing free online stuff from sites like Britefart is of course you get a narrow view of the world. Similarly more left wing sites have their own biased view and reporting on issues by both are typically diametrically opposed. The end result is a lot of self deluded people in both sides with a worldview nothing like reality.

  28. mrmudgeon says

    I fled Seattle for Thailand (everyone wears a mask here) and still give the PI 2 or 3 minutes a day.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    In Sweden during the 19h century, local elections were graded by income. Wealthy people got more than one vote. At least they did not pretend wealth had nothing to do with political decisions……

  30. Dunc says

    I’ll add my support to several previous favorable mentions of the Guardian-, it is still one of the only ways to see what was/is happening about Covid outside of the US.

    The FT have made a lot of their (very good) Coronavirus coverage free to read: https://www.ft.com/coronavirusfree.

    I’ve had an FT subscription for the last year, and I have to say I’ve found it very good. Yes, it’s expensive, but they’re doing the sort of quality journalism and analysis that has become all too rare even at formerly venerable outlets like the BBC and the Guardian, and they host a surprisingly wide range of views.

  31. KG says

    Similarly more left wing sites have their own biased view and reporting on issues by both are typically diametrically opposed. The end result is a lot of self deluded people in both sides with a worldview nothing like reality.

    This bothsiderist garbage makes me want to puke. You cannot name any left-wing site with a significant readership that spews the constant stream of outright lies and vicious bigotry that Fox, OANN, Breitbart, Alex Jones etc. do. In fact, I doubt whether you can find any of comparable dishonesty to those right-wing sites even among the sites of minuscule Marxoid sects.

  32. says

    As someone mentioned above, deleting cookies usually resets the “free” count, which is why switching browsers works, too, as each as their own cookie cache.

  33. says

    @gyreandgimble, #22: Sure, why not? They only charge for printed copies of newspapers for one reason: To cultivate the impression in the reader’s mind that they are a paying customer, as opposed to a commodity being packaged up and sold to the real paying customers.

  34. littlejohn says

    I can recommend The Atlantic, which has suspended its paywall because of the coronavirus. It’s left-wing, which is to say honest and accurate, and is my favorite magazine.
    As for people grumbling and repeating conspiracy theories about why newspapers aren’t free, let me say that I’m a retired newspaper editor. You guys are full of shit. I costs a great deal – far more than you pay – to produce a newspaper. You aren’t being gouged. Newspapers, in case you haven’t noticed, are going out of business, or being sold to chains that don’t care about journalism, left and right. Newspapers are dying, and that’s a shame.

  35. gaparker says

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned outline.com. Copy the desired URL (Ctrl-C), open up a new tab in your browser, go to https://outline.com/, paste in the URL, and you get the text of the desired article.

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