The Frankenstorm exception

Will lowered paywalls mean new customers?

At a Poynter ethics forum last week, Pew’s Tom Rosenstiel noted that one source of print journalism’s ongoing woes is focusing on supposedly dwindling audiences rather than dwindling dollars.

“The real crisis facing print journalism in particular is really more a revenue crisis than an audience crisis,” he said.

Ahead of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the tri-state area, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsday temporarily dropped their paywalls. While this makes sense as a public service to readers—and has been helpful information when so many people are stuck at home, wondering when their windows will start to shake—it makes little sense from an economic one.

From a purely financial standpoint, one could argue that it would’ve made more sense to keep the walls up and hope more users would subscribe for access to crucial reporting on the “Frankenstorm.” But of course taking the wall down for major weather events—as, if memory serves, some sites did during Hurricane Irene—undercuts the push to make the paywall model work. Presumably, the newspapers hope users will see what they’re missing and buy online subscriptions after the nasty weather passes.

But readers will take whatever they can get for free. When I get sick of circumnavigating the WSJ’s paywall hole by typing the landing page headline into Google, I stop reading it. When a small paper where I used to work instituted a paywall, I stopped reading that too (their storm coverage, too, is free). Pulling down the paywalls in a crisis just shows that the revenue issue won’t be resolved anytime soon.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , ,