Even though many local news organizations have moved their COVID-19 stories outside their paywalls, several are seeing encouraging boosts in their digital subscriptions during the crisis.
That’s a rare bit of good news as the pandemic poses an alarming threat to the many news outlets that struggled to find financial sustainability even before the virus shut down much of the economy. Some observers are predicting that 2020 could be a disastrous year for local news in the United States.
Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, tweeted March 16: “My increasingly confident prediction: 2020 will be the worst year in the history of U.S. local news media. Worse than any of 2006-10 through the financial crisis. We’ll see cities lose their last daily newspapers at a scale far beyond anything this country has seen.”
Yet the virus is also serving as a reminder of why local journalism is so important.
The Seattle Times, covering a city that was an early U.S. epicenter for COVID-19, has put all of its coronavirus content outside its paywall since about March 1, according to Kati Erwert, Senior Vice President of Product, Marketing and Public Service. The Times has seen “a very significant increase in digital subscriptions” – about two to three times its daily averages, with even bigger surges on major news days, such as when school closings were announced, Erwert said.
“Support from our readers and the community has been overwhelming, with many noting they’ve chosen to subscribe because of the importance of our reporting,” Erwert said.
Churn is as common as the sunrise, but we’re experiencing the lowest churn rate this month that we’ve seen since we introduced the pay meter about a year ago.Mark Katches, Executive Editor, Tampa Bay Times
Mark Katches, Executive Editor of the Tampa Bay Times, said his news outlet was one of the first to move virus stories outside its paywall. Despite the ability to read those stories without paying, people are buying digital subscriptions at double or triple the usual rate, he said.
“We’re adding 50 to 70 subscribers every single day and seeing very little churn,” Katches said. “Churn is as common as the sunrise, but we’re experiencing the lowest churn rate this month that we’ve seen since we introduced the pay meter about a year ago. We attribute that to high interest in our coverage.”
‘Public Service’ Mission
Evan Benn, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Director of Special Projects & Editorial Events, said “we have had all of our coronavirus coverage outside of our metered paywall since March 6 as a public service.”
Though he declined to be specific about the numbers, he said, “We are seeing a higher-than-usual number of digital subscription sign-ups as a result of the coverage and the significant audiences our journalism is reaching.”
Like newsrooms nationwide, the Inquirer saw the pandemic as a news development that was a call to duty for local journalists serving their communities.
Our top editors as well as our publisher and CEO have been regularly communicating with readers in digital and print columns about how we’re approaching this unprecedented story on their behalf.Evan Benn, Director of Special Projects & Editorial Events, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Our newsroom and product teams quickly collaborated on a free daily coronavirus newsletter,” Benn said. “Our marketing department and in-house Media Lab created a subscription campaign focused on our exceptional coverage: All Facts, No Panic. Our top editors as well as our publisher and CEO have been regularly communicating with readers in digital and print columns about how we’re approaching this unprecedented story on their behalf. And our newsroom has been working at a remarkable level despite moving to a decentralized operation as of this week — we posted 74 stories on coronavirus on [March 16] alone.”
Lee Ann Colacioppo, Editor of the Denver Post, also has seen subscriptions climb.
“In the days after the coronavirus hit Colorado, we saw a sharp increase — on some days fourfold — over our usual subscription numbers,” she said.
Initially, the Post put only the COVID-19 stories that were deemed most critical to public health outside the paywall, but later made all virus-related stories available to non-subscribers. “We saw a fast drop-off in subscriptions that day, but then they picked back up again and remain well above normal as our readers voluntarily subscribe to support the work,” Colacioppo said.
Frank Bridgewater, Vice President and Editor at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said his news outlet has dropped its paywall for all COVID-19 stories and has seen the total number of digital subscriptions rise 17% since the outbreak.
Mike Burbach, Editor and Vice President at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press, said: “We put our local coronavirus news outside the paywall almost two weeks ago, and all the rest of the coronavirus news a day later.” The Pioneer Press is seeing a “huge increase in traffic overall, and some increase in digital subscriptions, too,” Burbach said, but he didn’t have hard numbers.
Email Pitch for Subscriptions
Colin McMahon, Chief Content Officer for Tribune Publishing and newly named Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Tribune, said all of the chain’s outlets have placed their key COVID-19 stories “in front of the paywall and increased the pace of subscription starts.”
He did not provide numbers. But he did share an email he sent to people who are not Chicago Tribune subscribers but may have registered with the site or signed up for a newsletter. McMahon offered details of how the Tribune is reporting the story and asked readers to buy a discounted subscription. An excerpt:
Like a lot of businesses, we use a software called Slack to communicate internally in the newsroom. We dump all sorts of coronavirus information in Slack – tips from sources, questions from readers like you, story ideas, interviews, research documents, etc.
It’s all a bit overwhelming. But from this tangle of leads and data emerges journalism that expertly explains the complex nature of the COVID-19 story. Our smart, dedicated journalists track down the right sources, suss out fact from fiction, and put it all together into comprehensible stories that speak to the matters most important to you.
Your questions and concerns, which we track online, guide our coverage in a way I’ve never seen before.
Because coronavirus is such a threat to public welfare, we’ve collected our most essential coverage and placed it in front of our paywall so it’s available to all readers who visit our site.
But we rely on the support of subscribers to fund this work.
‘A Positive,’ but for How Long?
Many U.S. newsrooms have been shifting toward reliance on paid subscriptions rather than advertising revenue, so a decision to lower a paywall has serious implications for the bottom line.
Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern University’s Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, assessed the damage to local news from the pandemic.
“The irony of this crisis is that local news organizations are simultaneously experiencing a huge spike in demand for their journalism, and a crippling blow to the advertising and events revenue that helps sustain them,” said Franklin, who heads the Medill Local News Initiative, a project to promote financial sustainability for local journalism. “This is making the need for digital subscription revenue even more critical to their financial viability. At the same time, though, getting vital information to citizens for free during this extraordinary public health emergency is an invaluable public service. This creates a real dilemma for local news outlets.
“At the end of the day, we’re seeing many local news organizations prioritize keeping much of their coronavirus coverage in front of the paywall,” Franklin said. “That’s certainly a fulfillment of their mission to serve their readers. I’m hopeful that this crisis also serves as a reminder of the vital role that local news organizations play in their communities, and that will spur readers to support them by subscribing. That may be what we’re beginning to see now.”
I’m hopeful that this crisis also serves as a reminder of the vital role that local news organizations play in their communities, and that will spur readers to support them by subscribing.Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean, Northwestern University’s Medill School
Rick Edmonds, a media industry analyst at the Poynter Institute, expressed some caution about the subscription gains.
“You’re probably talking about fairly deeply discounted introductory rates, so how many of those people will stick and all that kind of thing would remain to be seen,” Edmonds said. But he added:
“It’s a positive – I’m not trying to say otherwise. It’s a good thing.”
The industry’s negative trends are obvious and worrisome, though.
“I do think for a number of alt-weeklies, except for the very strongest ones, they’re either making very drastic cuts or in some cases going out of business,” Edmonds said. “… You’re free, so you’re not getting audience revenues, and your ad base is so focused on events, nightlife, restaurants etc.”
But the impact may be far wider.
“If it goes on a while,” Edmonds said, “it will be very tough on daily newspapers, probably including the strongest ones.”