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
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
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.