When Should Publishers Offer Free Access During Emergencies?

With a fresh horror gripping the world on Friday and over the weekend, in addition to their urgent primary mission of newsgathering, big newspaper publishers faced an internal dilemma, requiring them to balance business against civic duty.

When is it appropriate to give free access to news about a major emergency -- and once you’ve started giving free access, when do you stop?

The terrorist attacks in Paris are an event of historical importance, with clear relevance far beyond France’s borders.

The latest in a series of outrages by Islamist terrorists against unarmed civilians around the world, they also mark a major escalation by the nightmare death cult that is ISIS. For the first time, it extended its operations from the “near enemy” in Syria and Iraq to the “far enemy” in the West.

Hopefully, the attacks set alarm bells ringing in every big national intelligence agency, and especially the U.S., still the natural primary target for terrorists opposed to Western influence.

For all those reasons it made sense, given newspapers’ professed commitment to public service, for newspapers like The New York Times to temporarily lift the limit on the number of articles visitors can see for free before having to buy a digital subscription.

From a business perspective, during these types of emergencies, publishers can ensure visitors don’t take advantage of the free access by limiting it to content about the particular topic. From a frankly self-promotional point of view, it’s also a chance to showcase the publication’s quality journalism, potentially converting casual visitors into paying subscribers.

The more difficult (and to my mind interesting) question is: When do you cut off the free access?

One reason this question is complicated is because it involves making a judgment about when an event has ceased to be an emergency, carrying with it an implicit “right to know,” and transitions into a developing story -- the subject of long-term, in-depth reporting and analysis that readers should pay for.

The answer to that question is hardly cut and dried.

The New York Times offered free access to content about the attacks from Friday through Sunday, well after the attacks themselves were over. Now, on Monday, French authorities are still hunting an eighth suspect in the attacks, while cracking down on radical Islamists across France and unleashing air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria.

The NYT, however, has lowered the paid access bar again. Probably unavoidably, the decision seems a bit arbitrary.

Of course, NYT’s management has every right to decide when to offer free access — or not to offer free access at all. But I’d be interested in knowing what goes into these decisions. Is it just a gut feeling? Is there a standard “48 hours and done” rule of thumb? Or is it based on analysis of traffic volumes? Do they consult with the State Department or their own peers in the news industry?  

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