Overreaching: WisconsinEye Wants a Paywall and Government Funding

WisconsinEye is an online and cable network that broadcasts and publishes videos of state government meetings. It’s a useful nonprofit service, that has run on private donations.

As donations are drying up, WisconsinEye president Jon Henkes has a two-part plan: erect a paywall (for content older than a day) and seek state funding. Patrick Marley summarizes the plan in WisconsinEye to put up paywall and seek state funding as donations dry up:

Under its new plan, WisconsinEye will continue to provide its live coverage for free, but subscriptions will be required to watch events that are more than 24 hours old. Access to all content will cost $9.99 a month.


In addition, the network wants to get money from the state in two ways.

First, it is asking lawmakers to provide it with annual payments, which Henkes described as a fee for its services. He did not say how much he wants and legislative leaders did not answer questions on whether they were willing to provide the network with direct funding.

Second, WisconsinEye is urging lawmakers to increase the fees lobbyists pay to help fund its operations. Many organizations and their lobbyists pay $750 or more every two years to try to influence the Legislature.

This is a bad idea, chiefly because a publisher that seeks a paywall (fair enough) shouldn’t also receive government subsidies. A private nonprofit that wants a paywall should always be free to offer its publication that way; to ask for government subsidies on top of a paywall is overreaching. (The WisconsinEye plan shows the organization knows that the paywall will not generate enough money, and looks suspiciously like an effort to make government subsidies more palatable by claiming they’re trying everything. If that should be true, then the paywall would take away access to government information while giving little in revenue in return.)

Using a portion of increased lobbying fees as a part of government funding is additionally (if not more) troublesome: when lobbyists know that part of their fees go to a publication, they’ll begin to lobby that publication and the government that allocates those fees for more favorable coverage.

Henkes’s WisconsinEye funding plan would limit access to non-subscribers while expecting government to subsidize those private limits, and would draw government funds from the group in the state ecosystem that’s closest to suckerfish and barnacles.

It’s a bad idea all around. If private donations won’t suffice (and how hard they’ve sought new donors one can’t tell), and if legislators still feel WisconsinEye merits government funding, then almost any government revenue source would be better than using a portion of lobbyists’ fees.

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