Why floods couldn’t break through Pennsylvania paywall, while New York Times created leaks in theirs

Newspapers spend a lot of time and energy erecting website paywalls, but are they thinking enough about when to take them down?

Even if a publisher commits to a paywall as the best business strategy for his news company, there may be some stories or subjects which carry such importance and urgency that it is irresponsible to withhold them from nonsubscribers.

Or is it?

As Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast Aug. 26 on a path toward New York City, Jim Roberts started talking to colleagues at The New York Times about making storm coverage exempt from the website’s 20-article-a-month limit. By that afternoon, it was done.

“We are aware of our obligations to our audience and to the public at large when there is a big story that directly impacts such a large portion of people,” said Roberts, the assistant managing editor in charge of digital content.

Floodwaters of the Susquehanna River partially submerge homes and a SUV in West Pittston, Pa. in this Sept. 9, 2011, file photo. (Matt Rourke, File/AP)

That wasn’t the sentiment a couple weeks later and 130 miles to the west when a storm system dumped torrents upon Northeastern Pennsylvania, pushing the Susquehanna River over its banks to the highest flood levels in almost 40 years. Water damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in the region. Many river towns were devastated, including Bloomsburg, Pa., left under water and closed to all but emergency workers.

Despite the calamity, Bloomsburg Press Enterprise Publisher Brandon Eyerly felt no obligation to open his newspaper’s paywalled website to nonsubscribers. (He did suspend the paywall for a few days, but only to soothe print subscribers whose home delivery was disrupted by flooding.)

Would-be readers called upon the Press Enterprise to extend free online access, especially for the sake of people outside the area. Some of them started their own community-driven journalism site, The Bloomsburg Daily. These were signs of the public’s desire, natural in times of community-wide affliction, for journalism to help measure the damage, chronicle the suffering, and eventually aid in healing and recovery.

Eyerly’s response? Buy the paper.

“If it’s important to people, they can go out and pick up a newspaper. They can go to the library and get it for free, or they can go to their neighbor who has it,” he told me in a phone interview.

Eyerly said critics unfairly suggested the newspaper had a duty to make its information freely available. The public could turn to the Red Cross for information, or to local TV news, he said. The Associated Press already had access to redistribute the paper’s best information and photos to make national audiences aware of the local suffering.

“This model of giving content away isn’t working,” Eyerly explained. “Before the ‘90s, how many newspapers said, ‘We’ve got something really tragic going on in the community … we have a community obligation to let people have this information for free. Forget our business, we’re going to give away free newspapers tomorrow because it’s a big story.’ It sounds ludicrous, but that’s kind of the analogy to what we’re looking at today.”

“The distribution of news through the Internet over the last two decades has kind of clouded our whole vision.”

The underlying tension is that newspapers act simultaneously as businesses and as servants of the public’s interest. As for-profit enterprises, they have the right (the duty, even) to make money for shareholders or private owners. But most also claim to have a social compact, in which they safeguard the entire public interest and help their entire community shape and understand its shared values.

The New York Times’ metered model — often called a “leaky paywall” — was “a thoughtfully produced judgment on how to balance those competing interests,” Roberts told me. It opens the site to browsing, occasional reading and social media sharing, while still pursuing some subscriber revenue.

Hurricane Irene was the first time the Times even partially suspended its paywall since it launched on March 28. It did not adjust the meter for Osama Bin Laden’s death, the Egyptian revolution, or other major news of the past six months.

“The difference with the hurricane is we felt there was the potential that we would be providing on our website a level of service information that somehow transcended journalism,” Roberts said. “Whether it was helping people understand evacuation zones, or up-to-the-minute updates on subway rail service.”

Each case has to be evaluated individually. But it seems the Times’ emerging standard is to drop the paywall (or at least poke holes in it) when the public is in danger of death, injury or major property damage — and needs access to actionable information.

Roberts said he could foresee such circumstances arising only once or twice a year on average. The goal, he said, is to recognize “the moment, not to upend your business model, but to shift the balance slightly. That’s what we did with the hurricane, and I think we did it to good effect.”

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for taking the time to share these details, Brandon. I resisted wandering too much into the details of your situation in this post, because I want to focus more on the broader question. But it’s good that you add it here for those interested specifically in this case study.

  • http://twitter.com/mattderienzo Matt DeRienzo

    Paywalls are a sad attempt by an industry that can’t come to terms with the changes that are destroying the print franchise, and ironic because they try to inflict a notion of scarcity and control on the very medium that has killed those concepts. The web has opened newspaper readers to a world of information at their fingertips. The web and mobile devices have allowed readers themselves to be information gatherers and sharers and to do journalism. You couldn’t ask for a better example of the folly of paywalls than the Bloomsburg case you write about here, right down to citizens starting their own local news site in response. Because they can. Anyone can. And guess what? It turns out they’re producing some pretty compelling stuff: http://bit.ly/nFfO4k

  • Anonymous

    As
    I told Jeff Sonderman, our paywall was dropped for five days!  The
    paywall was dropped for several days even after the immediate threat had
    passed. The critical updates were provided on Facebook and via our Facebook posts on the home page of our web site in real time and we continue to do that when there is breaking news. The uproar came
    long after the threat had passed from people out of the area more
    concerned with paying for online content than anything else. Jeff’s quote above:  “These were signs of the public’s desire, natural in times of
    community-wide affliction, for journalism to help measure the damage,
    chronicle the suffering, and eventually aid in healing and recovery.” Signs of the public’s desire?? Yes, they’re called subscribers and readers. We do that 365 days a year. There are fires, shootings, murders, and all kinds of suffering year round.  Should there be free access on those days as well?   And as I
    told Sonderman, the majority of the replies from our readers and local
    subscribers (i.e. our customers that pay our salaries and support our advertisers) were supportive of the pay wall. These are people that
    recognize the value of our product and understand it costs money to pay
    reporters, editors and photographers.  And to put this in perspective, despite the paywall, 95% of our paid customers are print customers.  So this whole debate centers around a small percentage of the online traffic that didn’t want to shell out $2.50 for a week. And let’s be clear, a paywall accomplishes
    two things: 1.)
    It provides a very small revenue stream for the newspaper but gets the
    public accustomed to paying for online content because there is simply
    no other viable long term online newspaper business model out there. If
    you disagree, you’re probably not aware that right now a large percentage
    of newspapers are being accumulated by banks and hedge funds. The
    Morning Call and Baltimore Sun are putting up paywalls because they’re
    now owned and run by business people that understand that the present
    free model isn’t working. 2.)
    It avoids cannibalizing the print product, which is clearly what has
    happened in this country. A printed copy can generate a dollar or more
    while an online visitor generates nothing or very close to nothing. Simply put, you need that dollar to pay for all the reporters, photographers, delivery people and support staff. And when print declines, well, so does news staff. And so does coverage. And so does our mission. Because the online dollars can not support 100 stories a day written by real people feeding their families. So let’s divide news into the following categories to help people understand this: 
    -Breaking urgent notifications and updates.  
    -Photos, in depth interviews and stories about people affected by the flooding. 
    We
    provided the first for everyone via Facebook and our Facebook posts
    placed on our web site. We continue to do so although the breaking news
    stories have obviously died down.  We provided the second category to
    everyone for five days free. Not just flood coverage, the entire paper!
     The lion’s share of coverage occurs during the first few days of a
    disaster. Afterwards there are stories of cleanup and updates for the
    community along with the regular news we cover and this will continue on
    for months. How long should a paper be given away for free? Ten days? A month? A year? If you opted for the latter, then you need to re-read the two things a paywall accomplishes. And on a separate note, the print product provided a very important source of information to people who due to the flood had their internet wiped out, their computers flooded or were forced out of their homes. But
    at some point, we have to draw the line as to when to provide our
    entire paper for free and when to ensure that our print advertiser’s
    messages are being seen by as many people as possible. There are plenty of other sources of information. But we obviously still provide a very important community service.  Because if we didn’t, then no one would be complaining that they
    couldn’t get the product for free.

  • http://twitter.com/PESueSchwartz Susan Schwartz

    The entire print copy was also delivered to the county’s emergency shelter.

  • Anonymous

    Jeff,

    Here at The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., we made a conscious effort to move our coverage onto as many platforms as possible to keep residents informed throughout the flooding crisis.

     We pushed breaking news and full updates to our website, which does not have a paywall, throughout the Tropical Storm Lee flood. We carried instant updates on Twitter and Facebook, often beating competitors in speed and accuracy. Reporters contributed dispatches to our sister radio stations and hourly updates on the local PBS television affiliate to ensure dissemination to residents who did not have access to our website. 

    This multimedia approach allowed the Voice to quickly publish information and dispel rumors — some of which were spread by our ill-informed colleagues in the broadcast media.

    Even our print editions, produced from a makeshift newsroom and printed at a sister newspaper, were distributed free of charge to evacuation centers.

    In crisis, the public service a news organization provides trumps all profit motives and paywall blockades. Information in these events can be the difference between life and death. Imagine if the 75,000 people evacuated from the flood zone in Luzerne County had to pay a fee before hearing the news? What if this crisis were more instant, like a tornado? Would the folks in Bloomsburg still hide the warnings behind a paywall, tucked away in the next day’s print edition?

    The news industry is changing. Now, more than ever, newspapers have the power of true public service and the technology to broadcast alerts just as rapidly as our friends in television and radio always have. Let’s seize this opportunity. The goodwill with readers will be more valuable than a couple nickels from an online subscription fee.

    And, if mere rhetoric isn’t enough, ask the folks who followed and responded to our Tweets during the flood.

    RT @mhryvnak: But if nothing else, I have a newly gained respect for @CitizensVoice and @WBRETV. They really stepped it up for this disaster. Good job all

    @mhryvnak: @CitizensVoice you did a terrific job. All involved should be given big fat bonuses. Lol.

    RT @randy0223 @CitizensVoice I have to thank you for the work you and your reporters have done. Giving first reports on the historic crest and aiding ppl!

    RT @GlobalScranton: Excellent #NEPA #flood news reporting via Twitter today by @CitizensVoice, @CVAndrewStaub and @CVPatSweet.

    Mike Sisak, Staff Writer
    The Citizens’ Voice

  • Anonymous

    Jeff,

    Here at The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., we made a conscious effort to move our coverage onto as many platforms as possible to keep residents informed throughout the flooding crisis.

     We pushed breaking news and full updates to our website, which does not have a paywall, throughout the Tropical Storm Lee flood. We carried instant updates on Twitter and Facebook, often beating competitors in speed and accuracy. Reporters contributed dispatches to our sister radio stations and hourly updates on the local PBS television affiliate to ensure dissemination to residents who did not have access to our website. 

    This multimedia approach allowed the Voice to quickly publish information and dispel rumors — some of which were spread by our ill-informed colleagues in the broadcast media.

    Even our print editions, produced from a makeshift newsroom and printed at a sister newspaper, were distributed free of charge to evacuation centers.

    In crisis, the public service a news organization provides trumps all profit motives and paywall blockades. Information in these events can be the difference between life and death. Imagine if the 75,000 people evacuated from the flood zone in Luzerne County had to pay a fee before hearing the news? What if this crisis were more instant, like a tornado? Would the folks in Bloomsburg still hide the warnings behind a paywall, tucked away in the next day’s print edition?

    The news industry is changing. Now, more than ever, newspapers have the power of true public service and the technology to broadcast alerts just as rapidly as our friends in television and radio always have. Let’s seize this opportunity. The goodwill with readers will be more valuable than a couple nickels from an online subscription fee.

    And, if mere rhetoric isn’t enough, ask the folks who followed and responded to our Tweets during the flood.

    RT @mhryvnak: But if nothing else, I have a newly gained respect for @CitizensVoice and @WBRETV. They really stepped it up for this disaster. Good job all

    @mhryvnak: @CitizensVoice you did a terrific job. All involved should be given big fat bonuses. Lol.

    RT @randy0223 @CitizensVoice I have to thank you for the work you and your reporters have done. Giving first reports on the historic crest and aiding ppl!

    RT @GlobalScranton: Excellent #NEPA #flood news reporting via Twitter today by @CitizensVoice, @CVAndrewStaub and @CVPatSweet.

    Mike Sisak, Staff Writer
    The Citizens’ Voice

  • http://twitter.com/PEKendron Peter Kendron

    I would note that the Press Enterprise did update its Facebook page with vital information, such as river levels, photos of flooding, places to get drinkable water and other information from the county Emergency Management agency in the aftermath of the flood. The PE’s website featured that Facebook information at the top of the log-in page, before the paywall. We made a conscious effort to get information of immediate value out. Was it the entire paper? No. But it was the information most important at that moment.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UPAINRS5ERYNZNVFFWSADAL4SA Mike

    It’s very short-sighted. During the floods, local business of all types made their products available free to flood victims — from businesses donating cleaning supplies to a furniture dealer donating several hundred thousand dollars worth of free furniture to those impacted by the flood. It’s bad business for newspapers not to open their paywalls during a catastrophe like this.

    What’s more, I would argue that it’s unethical to deliberately withhold important information during a disaster (unless someone is willing to pay you for that information). “Hey, only one major bridge remains open across the river. Want to know which one? Click here to pay $2 for the answer.”

  • http://tryauravie.net/ Susan Martineze

    The height of SUV is around 5 ft. So, if the flood can reach the tyres of SUV, i.e. around 2 ft. I guess it was very big floods and must have done big losses there. http://tryauravie.net/