At the moment, many publishers find themselves at a crossroads. They’re unsure if they should monetize high-performing pandemic content or offer it for free to support consumers (especially in light of reduced advertising and event-based revenue).
But the right path isn’t clear-cut.
Bloomberg Media put coronavirus content outside of its paywall, and still grew subscriptions by 86% between February and March of 2020. Meanwhile, other publishers who have loosened their paywalls report major losses, with some even moving to put it back up.
It ultimately becomes an ethical question: Should publishers be prioritizing the well-being of their own companies or of their consumers?
To help your company work through a successful and ethical paywall strategy, we’ve rounded up some words of wisdom from media experts across the industry. Here’s how they’re approaching this dilemma, and what they’re observing throughout the media landscape:
Managing Editor at Upsala Nya Tidning, Jens Pettersson
In Sweden, newspaper Upsala Nya Tidning continues to maintain a tight paywall throughout the pandemic, which Pettersson says is “a clear signal of the value of journalism.”
The publication will typically only lift its paywall for information on an inevitable and immediate life-threatening crisis.
“Our responsibility is to our paying customers,” Pettersson adds. “They are the ones making sure our journalists get their monthly paycheck.”
But not all media experts agree.
Executive Editor at The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance
According to LaFrance, The Atlantic has adjusted its paywall strategy so that critical information related to the pandemic is available to all consumers.
“We’ve prioritized free access to the stories that can help people make decisions that keep them safe, physically and mentally, as well the stories holding officials accountable for failures related to the virus,” LaFrance tells NiemanLab.
In other words, there’s value in offering essential information to the public for free. However, the company is still monetizing its audience. Every piece of content on its platform includes a subscription prompt to help the company drive revenue.
Medill Local News Initiative Lead, Tim Franklin
“At the end of the day, we’re seeing many local news organizations prioritize keeping much of their coronavirus coverage in front of the paywall,” Franklin states. “That’s certainly a fulfillment of their mission to serve their readers.”
A handful of local news publishers are even seeing a rise in digital subscriptions without pandemic-related content behind their paywalls.
Since this solution provides audiences with essential information in a noble way, Franklin suggests that consumers will recognize this and feel encouraged to offer financial relief to publishers by subscribing.
Knight Innovator-in-Residence at Florida University’s Journalism Faculty, Howard Saltz
After holding high-level roles at various media companies, Saltz has learned that newsrooms have a duty to charge a subscription fee for content — including anything related to the pandemic.
“We have obligations to the communities we cover,” Saltz explains. “But we can’t fulfill those obligations if we don’t exist.”
In Saltz’s opinion, businesses that offer a public service should still charge for their services to stay in business.
Executive Editor at The Post and Courier, Mitch Pugh
In March, a local news publisher in California known as The Post and Courier lifted its paywall for all pandemic-related content.
“We put a message at the top of those stories letting people know that we were doing it for free, as a public service, and we encouraged them to subscribe,” states Pugh.
Pugh notes that companies can still benefit from new, active users reading free content by requiring users to register on their platforms:
“On April 8th, we put a registration wall on all of our COVID content, so it’s still free, anybody can read it for free, but they have to give us an email address. And in two weeks we signed up 30,000 registered users.”
Companies can further engage registrants, encouraging them to convert.
With so many conflicting opinions on what a proper paywall strategy should look like during the pandemic, it may seem impossible to decipher the best course of action.
But media experts seem to have one thing in common. They all understand that, whether a paywall is maintained or loosened, publishers must be able to monetize their audience in some way or form.
This doesn’t mean that you need to choose between prioritizing the needs of your audience over the needs of your company — because one simply can’t survive without the other.