Why it makes sense for news orgs to remove their paywalls during the coronavirus crisis

Poynter’s Howard Saltz has a very interesting take on news organisations removing their paywalls during the coronavirus crisis:

The newspaper industry seems to think that public service can’t coexist with revenue. That’s a mistake — at a time when the beleaguered industry can’t afford to make one. We do provide an important public service, but why can’t a public service business be, well, in business?

Food is essential, but grocery stores aren’t giving it away.

Clothing? Not free. Not even at Goodwill.

Police are being paid during the crisis. So are garbage collectors. There are no freebies at the pharmacy.

These are all essential to the community at a time of crisis, yet no one expects these goods and services to be free. What are newspapers afraid of? Our products have value. People pay for things of value.

I think this is an excellent article by Howard Saltz. The headline gets your attention, and Saltz makes a lot of good points. At the end of every paragraph I nodded in agreement, thinking “that’s right, I did not think of this.”

But one thing is — I think — missing in the article: context.

Sure the COVID-19 crisis is mentioned, but what does it really mean for news organisations? My guess: it means a ton of extra traffic. These days, people check the news way more often than usual, and a lot of people are checking the news when they usually don’t.

To use Saltz’s analogy where news orgs are food stores, imagine there are ten times more people in the streets than on a regular day (I don’t thing there is ten times more traffic, but this is for dramatic effect). Now imagine you are a news org and all your direct competitors are suddenly giving some of their food for free: where do you think all the extra traffic will go? Your regulars and loyal customers will still be coming to your store, but even if only one percent of these extra visitors end up becoming regulars at the other stores, that is a missed opportunity for you.

News orgs may not be able to afford putting down their paywall for weeks, but they must think that they also cannot afford to miss a potential opportunity of that scale. Or so they might think.

Another point to consider: branding.

I’m sure Saltz knows a lot about branding, but I suspect he decided not to mention it to make his point stronger and to simplify. So when he asks “So why are we making our journalism free?” I think the answer is in the title: “Removing paywalls on coronavirus coverage is noble.” Being noble can be good for your brand.

Let’s use the store analogy again. In your neighbourhood, there are two kinds of food stores: the “free ones,” where store owners make money with ads, and the “premium stores,” where the owners make money by selling their products directly. Now imagine there is a crisis such as the coronavirus crisis in your neighbourhood. Imagine that suddenly, most of the “premium stores” — your direct competitors — start giving products for free to help people, to show solidarity in some way; in short: to be noble. Do you really want to be the guy who doesn’t help like the others? Your regulars may even be disappointed in you and switch their loyalty to the “good guy” at the other end of the street.

The sudden desire to have a public service role may not come from being noble. The need of being seen as a mobilised and involved brand may have played its part here. Being noble is not only a goal, it is also a mean: a mean to be liked.

Many companies are doing something to fight the spread of the virus. Whether it helps or not isn’t what matters for brands. What matters is how people will remember them. What matters is how people will react is they don’t do anything.

News orgs can’t afford to buy millions of masks. News orgs can’t manage to deliver thousands of breathing aid devices. So what do they do? What can they do? They remove their paywall for a while: a public service gesture that allows them to both look good and potentially increase their traffic at the same time. And if that does actually help, well that doesn’t hurt: it is a noble gesture after all.

In the end, removing the paywall may be a mistake like Saltz explains very well, but keeping it may end up being a bigger mistake in the end. It seems most news orgs have already made their choice (and also maybe just honestly want to help, without thinking too much about the consequences).