Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

COVID-19 cracks small holes in paywalls

Just as more and more paywalls were going up in the news media world, they’re now coming down. News organizations around the country are opening up their coronavirus content to non-subscribers, a public service with obvious benefits and little, if any, downside.

The approaches differ organization to organization. The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, for example, have Covid-19 landing pages that contain coronavirus-related headlines and abbreviated content. Others, such as The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, are making all their coronavirus coverage available, while leaving other stories behind their paywall. 

In virtually every case, the organizations use the opportunity to encourage subscriptions. The L.A. Times gives readers a chance to try their paper for just $1 a week. In a note to the public, The Inquirer says: “We’re making our vital, fact-based coverage of the coronavirus pandemic free to all. But we need your support to continue this essential public service to the Philadelphia region. Please subscribe or donate today.” McClatchy publications and Gannett stories have similar messages. 

And while The New York Times’ coronavirus content is free, users still need to create an account, giving the newspaper important email or social media data to extend its subscription outreach. 

I talked by phone with Ken Doctor, author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get” and a columnist for the Nieman Journalism Lab.

When and how should news organizations decide that the public interest, the public need is such that they should offer their content for free? 

Doctor: It’s a balancing act between access, which is always important to news organizations, and earning enough revenue to pay the journalists to do the work… In times of emergency, local papers have dropped paywalls with the idea that public access to the most important information in a crisis should be widely and freely available. It certainly makes sense and is a net positive in terms of the brand of the news and the mission of the news.

Is there a stickiness to readers who might go to a news organization because the paywall is down? Do they remain loyal to the brand, or does it fade away?

Doctor: There is not a lot of data. In most of these cases it will be a local situation and it will last something like two days, three days or a week… They happen so infrequently, that it could be a one-off.

The interesting corollary to this that may apply is that publications that have paywalls and do good enterprise investigative work can follow that unique work, that deep work to subscriptions. We’re not talking about huge numbers, but we’re talking about upticks in acquisitions. People do respond to understanding that somebody is doing something unique. The same thing could be true here.

How about revenue loss? Here we have the possibility of something that lasts a bit longer. What are the revenue implications?

Doctor: They are probably insignificant in terms of being negative. The subscribers that you have are either signed up on a monthly or an annual basis, many of them annual. So that’s money that’s going to keep flowing. The fact that the site has become free, or part of the site has become free, is not going to affect those who are continuing paying… Also the coverage of something like the virus in this case is open and free, but it doesn’t open up all the content on the site. 

This is hardly unprecedented. During local and regional crises – think floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados — local news outlets have offered open access to their coverage for free in their communities. But the sound of cracking paywalls has been thunderous given the scale of the coronavirus story. And no one knows how long this will last.