April 11, 2014

The mudslide near Oso, Wash., on March 22 and its aftermath commanded national attention, but one local news organization was in position to own the story.

That meant The Seattle Times had a decision to make: Was its tirelessly produced news about the disaster and the search for survivors so important that it merited a suspension of the website’s year-old paywall?

Yes and no.

“I believe that good journalism has value, good journalism costs money, and people should be willing to reward people who do that kind of journalism by paying for it, especially when we’re not asking them to pay a lot,” Kathy Best, the newspaper’s editor, told Poynter via phone.

The Seattle Times homepage on March 24, two days after the mudslide, accessed via Wayback Machine.

More than 30 staffers have swarmed in and out of the scene of the mudslide, racking up hotel costs in nearby towns. And the Times has rented a helicopter, too. “It’s expensive to cover these stories,” Best said, pointing out that throughout the coverage the Times was offering an introductory subscription rate: just $1 for 8 weeks of unlimited access to seattletimes.com. And the paywall is metered, allowing access to some stories before the prompt to pay kicks in.

Still, the Times wanted to make sure nothing would keep readers from accessing the most important stories related to the mudslide, Best said: “I also understand we have a responsibility to the community, and that’s why we took the content that was most directly about making resources available to victims, why we took that outside the wall.”

Typical of stories freed from the paywall: a list of ways to help and donate and a blog post about the IRS granting a filing extension for victims. More substantial content, including this daily wrap-up and interactive view of the area before and after the mudslide, remained behind the paywall but accessible under the free article limit.

The Times was also “doing a lot of watchdog and investigative journalism on the run” — important but less urgent stories, like this feature reporting that mudslide warnings went back decades despite a local official’s claim that the area “was considered very safe.”

The role of urgency

The contradiction: The best reason for insisting that readers pay — that news is valuable, even essential — also seems like the best reason for making it free. But lowering paywalls is usually done sparingly at major newspapers.

The Boston Globe dropped its paywall last year during coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Wall Street Journal lowered the paywall for Boston-related stories at the time, and The New York Times turned its paywall off completely.

But the nature of the news can dictate whether the curtain should be lifted. The New York Times kept stories about the killing of Osama bin Laden behind its gate, Nieman Lab reported at the time. While the story was a big one, it was also available everywhere, and it wasn’t urgent in the sense that victims needed help or people needed to take action.

The other major story since the Age of the Newspaper Paywall began, of course, was Hurricane Sandy. The New York Times, Globe, Journal, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, and smaller New England papers all announced their paywalls would be lowered or suspended completely during the storm.

“I think each news organization has its own reasons to make a call on dropping a paywall voluntarily but, typically, it is done with a public service prism that might, on occasions, also have good business reasons,” said News Corp’s Raju Narisetti, senior vice president for strategy, via email.

Narisetti said The Wall Street Journal’s decision to lower its paywall during Sandy was partially motivated by the fact that newspapers couldn’t be delivered to all print subscribers, some of whom weren’t registered users of the site.

But when a major national story like Sandy erupts, news becomes more commoditized. Readers blocked by a paywall at one site can easily turn to another, so there’s less danger of missing out on essential information. Then again, this is still a business, and disasters make for a good time to give readers a taste of how valuable newsgathering is to them.

Best said she could envision local news scenarios in which The Seattle Times paywall would be dropped completely, but there’s no specific policy for determining when to do it. “Certainly we would make sure that any information that was life or death information was available free,” she said. “But I think each news event is going to pose different challenges and so I think we would decide them on a case-by-case basis.”

Ultimately, Best said, it comes down to what information is deemed so important that it’s not worth the risk that anyone who needs it won’t get it: “How you define ‘essential’ will guide your decision-making on what you put behind the paywall and what you don’t.”

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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