August 2, 2016

As Election Day nears, news organizations that keep their journalism behind a paywall will likely give some of it away for free.

When The New York Times dropped its paywall for 24 hours before election day in 2012, it was keeping with a policy of providing “critical information” for big breaking news like natural disasters and presidential elections. The Wall Street Journal, which has one of the industry’s “hardest” paywalls, also offered its coverage for free on election night.

But should those paywalls come down well in advance of election day?

Roughly half of adults still get some election news from news websites and apps, according to Pew. So what does it mean when “civically valuable” information such as coverage about the upcoming election cycle (and not just results) is only fully available to those who pay?

And then, the obvious followup: How do news organizations balance public interest with their commercial interests when making decisions about when to drop their paywalls?

Once paywalls are up, they do occasionally come down. A great paper released last month by Mike Ananny and Leila Bighash details 69 paywall drops between 1999 and 2015 and separates them into six categories:

  • Public emergencies like hurricanes and mudslides, the Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings.
  • Planned public events like elections, Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee and the Olympics.
  • Advertising with strategic partners, which is when paywalls drop because of a publisher’s relationship with a specific advertiser or promoter.
  • Audience growth, as part of strategies to increase audience for a section or publication.
  • Experimentation to discover how and when paywalls should be used.
  • Providing wider access for “coverage considered too civically valuable to commodify financially.”

Ananny and Bighash consider the tradeoffs news organizations make, noting:

Each time a news site explains why it drops a paywall — or fails to — it leaves clues about how its values intersect with its commodification strategy, its technology design and its brand identity.

When news organizations drop paywalls — or decide not to — for only some parts of election campaigns, certain emergencies, particular geographies, specific content or select advertising partners, it shows how the power to selectively decommodify news reflects the power to define the scope, duration and significance of events and constituencies — a power that only organizations with economic reserves, cultural standing, or risk affinity may possess.

I wonder if putting content behind a paywall adversely affects what gets shared on social media sites. Are people more likely to share or click stories that aren’t behind a paywall, or encourage others to post articles that aren’t behind a paywall? (There are examples of people asking others to not post paywall links from Reddit and Metafilter, among other sites).

Is there a quality difference between news stories that are behind a soft or hard paywall and those that aren’t? Does that lead to certain types of stories circulating among groups of readers, which then may further feed into the “ echo chamber of affirmation?”

And most importantly, what is the civic responsibility of journalists during an election cycle?

Perhaps the upcoming election gives news organizations of all sizes a chance to consider the kinds of public services they provide readers and to ask themselves whether election coverage is significant enough to merit a paywall drop.

I say this because in 2011, then-New York Times assistant managing editor of digital content Jim Roberts noted that the paper dropped the paywall for Hurricane Irene because of the paper’s “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.”

Election coverage would certainly seem to fall into that category. But if national news organizations like The Wall Street Journal and the Times only drop the paywall for election results — and not for their ongoing in-depth coverage that might help readers make informed decisions with their ballots — then they continue to play into the results-based model of election coverage which values quick figures over in-depth coverage and the winners and losers trope over reported, investigative work.

I understand the business rationale for paywalls — someone has to pay for all of the excellent reporting — but I wonder if there are ways to do with while dropping the paywall, particularly for 2016 and subsequent elections.

For example, right now, people sitting in a Starbucks using their Wi-Fi can access more free New York Times articles than those of us who brew our coffee at home.

Should news about politics fall into a different default setting? And can news organizations incentivize readers (and reporters) to bridge the gap? I reached out to Ananny for his take on when and how paywalls could come down.

What considerations should newspapers think about when deciding whether providing information about the upcoming election cycle might outweigh their business interests?

Ideally, providing information about an election is part of a news organization’s business interests, so I don’t think the two need to be put in conflict.

Yes, news organizations need to earn revenue, and part of that revenue comes from making their product (news) scarce (behind paywalls only subscribers can access). But news media are unlike other providers of products and services because they — ideally — are in the business of helping people figure out how to govern themselves; they’re not only the business of earning revenue and delivering returns to shareholders.

Since part of that governing happens during election cycles, providing information about issues and candidates is in a news organization’s business interest. As media economist Ed Baker put it, newspapers aren’t just “selling toasters.”

News media are sometimes said to be double-sided markets (they’re serving advertisers and subscribers) but really they’re triple-sided markets because they’re also serving an ideal of self-governing democracy.

If providing information about an upcoming election for free is seen as conflicting with business interests, then news organizations might think about:

  • When during an election cycle should news be free? What do news organizations think are the most important parts of an election cycle? Which parts of an election does a news organization think are more or less important to democracy?
  • How might offering news for free during an election cycle demonstrate a news organization’s commitment to its public mission? That is, maybe people expect news organizations to offer news for free during some or all of an election — so not offering news for free might not be in the news organization’s best business interests.
  • How might news organizations tell audiences or other funders that offering news for free (e.g., foregoing subscription or advertising revenue) during an election has financial costs that need to be offset at other times, outside of elections?

When should public interest considerations supersede commercial interests? (Or what questions could publishers ask themselves to see whether a particular event merits a paywall drop?)

Questions publishers might ask themselves include:

  • How does the news we’re providing differ from other news outlets?
  • Do we think that, because it is significantly different from what others are offering, it needs to be free — i.e., we’ll grow our audience by giving people access to something they have no other way of getting?
  • Or, because it’s significantly different from what others are offering, we need to charge for it — i.e., we have a scarce product that has value and thus can earn us revenue?
  • What harms might be done if people don’t get access to this news — because they don’t read something because they don’t want to pay?
  • Who do news organizations think their audiences are and who do they want their audiences to be? Answering this question will help news organizations understand what role they think they play in their audiences’ lives right now, and what role they aspire to play.

This all boils down to a bigger question: What does a news organization understand its public interest to be?

Without an answer to this question, it’ll be impossible to understand these trade-offs, when or why commercial interests might be suspended, or how making news free might actually be in the news organization’s commercial interest (e.g., building an audience).

There is no single answer to this question that works for all news organizations (different ones will have different public interests) but news organizations must be able to articulate their answer to this question so they’re ready to go when some event happens that begs the question of whether news should be free in that moment.

What are the implications of news organizations being the ones to decide what information should be freely available and what should be behind a paywall?

News organizations have considerable power and responsibility: they make the news, they have access to places non-journalists can’t access, they have First Amendment protections do their work, audiences expect them to provide a public service and they get to decide when to charge for news and when to make it free.

News organizations might be more open about what trade-offs they’re making, and how they understand their public missions. News organizations might also use moments like elections to argue for more public funding of media — saying “look how powerful it is for news to be freely accessible during elections, what if we had more funding for public media all the time?”

More public funding for media would shift this power to decide what’s free and what isn’t away from internal news organizations, their idiosyncrasies and their reading of market forces.

The biggest implication is that news organizations get to decide how to balance commercial versus public interests. If there were more public funding of media, publics might get to make this decision, ensuring that more news circulated freely, and not just during some parts of elections.

The questions and answers have been edited slightly for clarity.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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