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By A.S. Panneerselvan  Reader’s Editor, The Hindu

The idea that news is free actually undermines the sustainability of the news industry.I support the idea of a paywall for a simple reason: public interest journalism needs public investment.

Last Thursday, I stood in a queue at the Indira Gandhi International Airport to take the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) test. When three wide-bodied aircraft landed in quick succession, the queue got longer, and the process slower. In order to ease the passing of time, to borrow a phrase from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, I began reading a report, “Evacuation from China, Quarantine in the UK: A Covid-19 Dispatch” by Lavender Au published in The New York Review of Books. It was a printout that I had taken in Kathmandu before coming to India.

The idea of a paywall

The many references to COVID-19 and quarantine in the text, printed in large font, attracted the attention of a couple of fellow travellers. The moment they realised that I am the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, their focus shifted from the virus to journalism. They insisted that The Hindu should at least place its stories on COVID-19, including ones debunking myths surrounding the virus, outside the paywall. They told me that it is the duty of a major publication like The Hindu to not only generate credible reports, but also make them available to every reader.

The next day, this newspaper carried a lead article by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh titled “An unrest, a slowdown and a health epidemic”. My fellow travellers called me and said that important articles like Dr. Singh’s should also be offered free. They used two terms while arguing their point: ‘credible news’ and ‘democratic duty’. As a news ombudsman, I am also beholden to these two terms. The very idea of having an interlocutor between the readers and the editorial shows the newspaper’s commitment to foster trust and build a better news ecology that can confront the spread of disinformation and misinformation.

I support the idea of a paywall for a simple reason: public interest journalism needs public investment. Fair pricing of news products, be it in print or on digital platforms, alone can sustain independent media. The idea that news is free actually undermines the sustainability of the news industry. In light of these fresh demands for placing specific stories outside the paywall, I had a long interaction on this issue with the Editor, Suresh Nambath. His arguments were also for fair pricing.

Rationale for the subscription model

Mr. Nambath explained the rationale for the subscription model as devised by The Hindu’s digital team: “It’s been long recognised now that advertising, which sustains the printed newspaper to a large extent, is a really weak source of revenue when it comes to digital publications. That doesn’t mean advertising has no role to play; it does play a role, albeit a limited one. A large number of digital start-ups in news have come up in recent years without a business model to speak of — many of these are kept afloat by money pumped in by venture capitalists. The Hindu decided to tap digital subscriptions, and last year became the first mainstream Indian publication to do so.”

Mr. Nambath explained how this source of revenue is seen as a natural fit for the kind of journalism the newspaper practises. “Many others who have tried to tap digital advertising to its fullest have done so by throwing in a lot of, what we could call, low quality viral content. These publications have been okay with publishing gossip, unconfirmed news, stories about personal lives of celebrities, stories with graphic description of violence and so on in their attempts to get as many page views as possible. In fact, the philosophy that governs our print publication is also the philosophy that governs our online properties. Only the formats change. The journalism and values behind the journalism are the same. Given this, the best way to make it a sustainable proposition was to tap subscriptions. This helps us have a direct relationship with the reader,” he said.

News gathering and news processing are expensive. The Hindu’s seamless coverage of news is a result of the round-the-clock efforts of hundreds of people — reporters, editors, fact-checkers, photographers, videographers, publishers and support staff.

The price of digital subscription turns out to be less than ₹2.50 a day. Subscriptions come with a host of additional benefits. This is an essential democratic investment.