Commentary

Is Dropping Paywalls A Mistake During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

News publishers nationwide have removed digital paywalls on their coverage COVID-19 pandemic in the spirit of keeping people informed about a major health crisis.
That's a major mistake for an industry that already faced serious financial woes before the coronavirus outbreak, argues former publisher and editor Howard Saltz in a blog post for the Poynter Institute.
People shouldn't expect newspapers to give their product away any more than they demand grocery stores hand out free food.
“Our products have value," he writes. "People pay for things of value.”
He also questions whether any public goodwill that newspapers generate during the pandemic will translate into paid subscriptions after the crisis subsides. He cites the experience of Florida newspapers that lowered paywalls during hurricane coverage, only to lose that readership when they cut off free access.
“There’s a belief among some industry leaders that the good feelings generated by a caring newspaper during times of crisis will yield paid subscriptions in the future," he writes. "But there’s no research to support that.”
Saltz makes a solid argument for keeping paywalls in place during the pandemic, although I don't agree with everything he says.
Readers of this column know I'm a huge fan of paywalls -- they are a necessary source of revenue as advertisers look for audiences elsewhere, including social networks and search engines. Subscribers can provide a more stable source of recurring revenue that's less cyclical than media spending.
However, the pandemic is a time of shared sacrifice, and that includes news organizations seeing a surge in web traffic as housebound consumers look for updates about the crisis. Unfortunately, that traffic is more difficult to monetize as advertisers cancel or suspend campaigns amid collapsing consumer demand -- especially for big-ticket items like cars and household appliances.
It will be interesting to see if publishers can convert higher web traffic into paid subscriptions, as The Atlantic did last month.
The magazine touted record visitor traffic as it dropped paywall restrictions on coronavirus coverage — and racked up a record tally of 36,000 new paid subscriptions, according to an internal memo from EIC Jeffrey Goldberg cited by CNN.
That kind of virtuous cycle of converting readers into paid subscribers should be a key goal for publishers as the pandemic subsides.

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1 comment about "Is Dropping Paywalls A Mistake During The COVID-19 Pandemic?".
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  1. Craig Lesly from Lesly Consulting, April 7, 2020 at 3:27 p.m.

    This is a Bernie Sanderclaus world.  EVERYTHING is free!!!

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