January 25, 2016

There’s a well-established playbook for digital journalists when tragedy, or some other big breaking news story, strikes a community.

Reporters and photographers fan out across the affected area, becoming roving news bureaus as they publish images and bulletins to Instagram and Twitter. Back in the newsroom, editors make room for the coverage on a liveblog or clear out airtime for continuous coverage from an anchor’s chair. Social media coordinators go into overdrive, using their accounts to share information from far-flung correspondents, eyewitnesses and the authorities.

Another move that has gained popularity among news organizations dealing with big news: tear down the paywall. When a massive snowstorm walloped the East Coast this weekend, multiple newsrooms in cities bearing the brunt of the storm allowed readers to browse an unlimited amount of content without asking for their credit card number.

The strategy, announced by The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun before the storm hit, has its roots in a public-spirited attempt to keep readers informed when public safety is at stake, said Matt Bracken, director of audience engagement and development at The Baltimore Sun. Rather than withhold vital information about storm severity or roadway conditions, The Sun’s leadership wanted to open it up to as many readers as possible — and generate a bit of of winter goodwill in the process.

“I think the ultimate mission for us is to inform the public in times of crisis,” Bracken said. “And this weekend’s weather certainly qualified in our opinion. It was a pretty easy decision for our staff to make.”

The Post echoed that sentiment, with a spokesperson telling Poynter the paper puts its priorities on serving readers in times of crisis rather than maximizing traffic.

The storm’s negative effect on The Sun’s delivery was another point in favor of lowering the paywall. Bracken said he’s heard from some subscribers on social media who said they didn’t receive their print editions after the storm dumped nearly 30 inches of snow on the Maryland city.

When that happened, Bracken referred readers to the paper’s (now free) website and its e-edition, which has been around for years but is seeing a new surge in popularity.

It’s unclear whether lowering the paywall had any effect on overall readership, Bracken said. The Sun has seen a 67 percent increase in pageviews over last week, but that spike might have more to do with a breaking news story gripping the city than it does the sudden availability of free news.

Could lowering the paywall lead to an increase in subscribers, who visit The Sun on a trial basis and decide they want to become regulars? Bracken says he doesn’t know for sure how many first-time readers convert to digital subscribers during no-paywall periods but estimates these events do result in some new Sun loyalists.

And in cases where The Sun has an opportunity to reach a broad audience, taking the paywall down might be a great exercise in brand awareness, Bracken said. When the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray rocked the city last year, The Baltimore Sun notched an all-time traffic record, more than doubling its previous high mark before the paywall came back up. Bracken says he still receives the occasional email from readers asking why they have to subscribe to The Sun when they just want to read the paper’s coverage of the protests a la carte.

For how long should stories about matters of public interest be free? The Sun, which has yet to re-erect its paywall, likely won’t begin charging readers again until the danger has completely passed.

“When the city regained control after the Freddie Gray unrest and some semblance of normalcy returned to the city, the decision was made to return things to normal on the website,” Bracken said. “And my guess is with the snow story it will be the same.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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