the case for making crisis journalism free

So I was rereading this Poynter piece about how yes, removing paywalls on coronavirus coverage is noble — but it also “makes no sense,” and I couldn’t immediately decide how I stood on it. 

Tl;dr, it’s become standard practice for local and national outlets alike to offer free access to their coverage in times of crisis, both as a way to situate journalism as a public service but also, of course, to let potential subscribers “sample” the goods. 

The somewhat queasy question that Howard Saltz, former editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is asking here, is this: Is that actually financially sound, especially since A) local journalism has not been doing well for like...decades, and B) in light of the coronavirus-induced recession cometh, advertisers are so spooked so much that even if you get a jillion more pageviews to your site every day, you could still be losing money based on how CPMs are shaking out. If the journalism is really that essential, doesn’t that make it more valuable and worth paying for? 

There is a part of the argument that comes off pretty tone deaf, though:

And whom are we really helping? Anyone who can afford an internet connection and a device with which to access content can also afford a newspaper’s digital subscription. It’s not expensive. 

Ooof. Dude, give me the hard numbers and the business case, but maybe leave the many, many people without internet at home or the extra $10-50 a month out of this please?? (I know the NYT has that $4/month promo right now, but automatic renewal comes for us all.)

Anyway, at the end of the day, Saltz doesn’t quite give us compelling proof that making extra-essential coverage free is or isn’t breaking the bank………...but luckily for us, we do have at least one case study to work with for now, according to Nieman Lab in the form of The Atlantic, an outlet that’s made their coronavirus coverage free — and as a result, more than doubled their last record traffic month. 

More importantly, The Atlantic brought in 36,000 new subscribers — which, if we do a lil math based on the details of the subscription tiers and who paid what — amounts to about $1.9 million in revenue. Per month. 

I know, I know, we can’t all be The Atlantic. But now we know: It can be done, and for an outlet that doesn’t begin with New York.


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