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How media paywalls work in authoritarian countries

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Experience shows that charging for news can ensure independence but limit influence…

There’s been a lot of talk recently about journalism and paywalls and much of the general conversation has been focused on the economics of supporting quality reporting; however, nearly all of it has been centered on American journalism.

With a limited number of strong professional publications charging serious money for subscriptions, there is a risk that curious, active people won’t be able to budget enough for all of them. The journalists can survive and do quality work, but the reach of that work and therefore its influence will be limited. This is a balance that’s worth keeping in mind.

I’d like to widen the frame on both counts — by sharing my experience in the old Eastern bloc. There, the record is more complicated. In Russia, paywalls have been essential for maintaining journalistic integrity. At the same time, they have shown that charging for journalism can reduce its impact. In authoritarian countries, this can in turn lead to an erosion of free speech and accountability.

In Hungary, people close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government buy media outlets, which the government then supports with advertising. Those who remain independent find themselves shunned by commercial advertisers.

Yes, we’re a long way from Russia. But concerns related to what happens when quality journalism has only one source of revenue to count on should never be too far in the distance.

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