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The media is failing to communicate journalism’s value to the public

May 7, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

It’s important to celebrate the little victories right now. It’s how we stay sane.

Even in the face of a crisis that threatens the continued existence of newspapers at all levels, small wins are vital. Whether that’s the boost in subscriptions at local titles or the bucking of the conventional wisdom around who can provide good coverage. It’s there if you look hard enough.

Despite that, it’s undeniable that the focus isn’t on expansion at newspapers. It’s about survival, and will be for the foreseeable future. There isn’t a media company in the world that hasn’t been touched by this. Even if some countries provide bailouts to their media, we won’t get through it without the public’s aid.

Which is why it’s very frustrating that some journalists are so terrible at communicating with that public about their publications’ paywalls.

In it together

As much as this is a crisis for the media, it’s as acute for the public. There is understandable panic and confusion. Misinformation – potentially deadly – is everywhere. It follows then that the public – not ‘our readers’ (not yet) – are looking to trusted newsbrands to provide that information. It’s just as understandable, then, that they should feel frustrated when that information is gated. And really, can we blame them for becoming habituated to free digital news over the past decade or more?

The public has not, for the most part, been privy to internal discussions about newspapers’ finances, or falling CPMs, or ad blacklists. Instead, most of the messaging around paywalls over the past few years has been predicated on the idea that you have to pay for quality, which has worked for some.

Despite that, the public by-and-large still do not choose to pay for online news. That’s especially true in comparison to entertainment products – even multiple entertainment subscriptions. So when they hit the paywall, they frequently push back. That’s understandable.

Shouting and shaming

What isn’t understandable is the furious reaction that journalists have to being asked to answer for their paywalls (i.e., explain why content is gated to content consumers). I won’t link to any examples. There are plenty out there, and I suspect you’ve seen them: hectoring replies about why you wouldn’t ask other people to provide work for free (although you might if your life depended on it), or about that fact that it costs good money to produce journalism. But really, this approach doesn’t seem to shame many people to pay as a result.

Given that it’s Twitter, it’s probable that much of that spitting, hissing reaction from journalists is performative, for other journalists’ benefit. But even if we’re aren’t in the middle of a Covid-19 intensified trust crisis as some have suggested, the reality is that journalists (or the media writ large) are still often untrusted and unloved. Blaming the public for not paying to support us isn’t going to help that.

For people who are paid to communicate, we communicate the need for public support very badly. It’s an oddity that newspapers’ pitch to brands is that we know our audiences and have a relationship with them. But yet, in large part, we aren’t making a convincing case that newspapers are vital.

Free to fee

Worse, it misses the point. It might well be the mandate at some publications that paywalls are the only way to make money and, therefore, fiercely defended like some ancient rampart. But if the current crisis has shown us anything, it’s that some information should be free. And in fact, it can materially benefit the publication by being so.

It is demonstrable that some publications are benefiting from publishing Covid-19 coverage for free to the public. The Guardian, of course, is a staunch advocate of the idea of publishing content for free. That said, the media company recently reported significant growth in the number of people who choose to support it. Some of that is, of course, based on other factors like its Crosswords app etc, but the messaging around the need to provide access to free news in the face of coronavirus appears to have landed. Its editor-in-chief Kath Viner said:

“Readership and financial support from readers have grown at record rates during the past two months of the coronavirus.”

The Guardian is also (probably not coincidentally) ranked as the best British paper for coronavirus content according to a University of Oxford study. You can only trust what you can see, after all.

The Atlantic has seen a huge rise in subscriptions, which in part has been attributed to its decision to put its coronavirus coverage outside the paywall. On the latest episode of the Media Voices podcast, its international editor Prashant Rao told us:

“I think there are a couple things that seem to be happening. One is… I think people come to The Atlantic and they read, for example, Ed Yong on science, and they’re just blown away because he is just such a high quality writer and reporter, and somebody who synthesises such complex things, and he’s such a great communicator. But then if it was just Ed, I think a lot of those readers would just come for Ed and leave, and they wouldn’t hit the five story metred limit.”

A similar pattern is evident at The Daily Beast. The decision to put more of its Covid-19 content outside the paywall is considered a factor in its almost 100% growth in sign-ups comparing January to March 15th, and March 15th to now. Crucially, during that time its messaging has gone from one of extolling the benefits of membership to one of survival. Quid pro quo. We provide you with vital information, and you help us to provide it to other people too.

The Financial Times – practically the poster child for subscription success – also made its coronavirus coverage freely accessible. The New York Times placed its coverage of the pandemic outside its paywall and at the same time racked up the highest number of paid subscriptions in a quarter in its history.

Habit forming

There are very many excellent reasons for newspapers not to make their content available for free, even now. It could habituate people to expect it for free (again). It potentially lessens the prestige of the articles for those publications that rely on selling it based on exclusivity. You potentially miss conversions from the fly-by-night readers who bounce in and out of your site.

However, there are equally strong arguments to be made that now is exactly the time to make information about the coronavirus – information that could save lives – universally free to access. There are financial benefits, as at the Guardian, Daily Beast, and others above. There is an opportunity to invest in the future by proving to a doubting public that we have their best interests at heart, and aren’t hoarding life-saving information to dole out piecemeal to those who can afford it.

And, can we really say that newspapers are delivering upon the ideals of journalism if we don’t use news as a tool to protect the public? And if the time to do that isn’t now, then when is it?

People say these are uncertain times. One thing that is absolutely, irrefutably true, however, is that it is not the public’s fault if we cannot convince them to support us. We are communicators and this is a critical message that must be delivered along with the news.

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