News organizations across the United States are lifting paywalls to share coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, a public service many hope will convince more readers to eventually become paying customers.
At the same time, the societal shutdown caused by the virus is exacerbating a decline in advertising revenue that has slowly choked many publications, already resulting in layoffs and furloughs.
Media outlets big and small, from The New York Times to the Telegraph-Forum in Bucyrus, Ohio, are letting people read their coronavirus coverage without a subscription.
Financial concerns shouldn't keep anyone away from news and information that could be a matter of life or death, David Yonke, Telegraph-Forum editor, wrote to readers explaining the move.
The drill is familiar at the Palm Beach Post in Florida, which has similarly dropped paywalls when hurricanes loom off the coast. The big difference here is no one knows how long this “storm” will last, said Nick Moschella, executive editor.
“When they need us most they want us for free,” Moschella said Thursday. “I think there's an expectation of that.”
On Sunday, the website for the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio had more than a million page views and 670,000 unique visitors. A week earlier, the site had 271,000 page views and 55,000 visitors, said Executive Editor Alan Miller, who's also regional editor for 21 Gannett newspapers in Ohio.
Readers are hungry for information about local shutdowns and people in the community who have tested positive. A popular story in Florida was the exhausting saga of a man in Boca Raton who needed to get tested. Service stories, like one that detailed steps people should take if they suspect they have the virus, are also popular, Miller said.
“We're making it free as a public service and hope that readers who appreciate that would consider subscribing to the Dispatch,” he said.
Some organizations make their pitch explicitly. The Washington Post's website has a letter to readers from Executive Editor Marty Baron that links to a $29 yearly subscription offer.
“I hope you'll agree that a first-year subscription at that price is a bargain for journalism that is at the heart of our democracy and that is, especially now, vital to public health,” Baron wrote.
The Seattle Times has seen its online readership triple and, at key moments, increase ten-fold, Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores wrote in a column. Subscriptions have increased as a result, she said.
“It's one thing to watch CNN and hear about what is going on at the White House,” said news consultant Ken Doctor. “It's another thing to hear about what's going on down the street.”
But Doctor fears that whatever gains that news organizations will make among readers with a newfound appreciation for their work will be more than offset by losses in advertising revenue. If concerts and other events are being canceled, and people are avoiding restaurants, that advertising will dry up.
The weekly Sacramento (California) News & Review cited those factors this week in halting print publication there and at its sister papers in Chico, Calif. and Reno, Nevada.
“We will have to suspend publishing and lay off nearly all of our amazing and talented staff, we hope only temporarily,” Jeff vonKaenel, the publications' president.
Similarly, the Military Times is furloughing dozens of its staff members for two weeks. The publication aimed at veterans and active military is dependent on special events, which have been called off.
Advertising has also taken a hit at the Palm Beach Post, but Moschella said it's too early to tell what the eventual damage will be.
“We would hope that readers would soften that blow for them if they could,” Doctor said.