We knew there would be heavy rainfall in the city of Cologne, Germany, and its surrounding communities on July 14, 2021. The weather forecast showed there could be record-breaking rain coming to our distribution area. What we didn’t expect were the floods triggered by it.
On July 14, I was working in my home office, and the rain just wouldn’t stop. In the afternoon, I decided to get out of the chair and into the water. I took a short drive through my neighbourhood, got out of the car, and got very wet while snapping a few pictures and short videos. It was clear that this wasn’t an ordinary day of rainfall in Cologne.
In the late hours of July 14, there where emergency alerts coming in from all regions at the same time. Two dams were at the brink of breaking — “life-threatening danger” was announced for some creeks.
Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger is distributed in nine cities and region in the western part of Germany. We quickly reconfigured our home page to show as many stories as possible about the immense catastrophe, which later proved to be the biggest natural disaster to ever hit the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
In the early morning hours of July 15, we did a quick call with our sales and marketing team, and made a decision regarding our freemium paywall. We decided to publish all our reporting on the flooding for free, but we showed a banner explaining this decision to our readers. The message? You can read for free, but if you want to support us nevertheless, please subscribe.
On that day and the two following days, we doubled our subscription numbers compared to the average day over the four prior weeks — even without showing a paywall on our most-read stories. The decision to drop the paywall received positive feedback on social media. In one letter to the editor, a woman told us she broke into tears when reading about our approach. Our take was: If you struggle to survive, you should not be bothered with entering a password or registering to get much-needed information, which, in some cases, public broadcasting wasn’t providing.
More than 100 people died during these hours in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate and NRW, and many houses were washed away. Our editorial staff was also heavily effected. Two offices in the Eifel region were completely destroyed, and one bigger office in Euskirchen lost power and its Internet connection. Some reporters’ houses were flooded, too. Other reporters worked for the voluntary fire brigade through the night and switched to reporting without much sleep.
Mobile communication broke down completely in one large region, so we weren’t able to get in touch with many of our staff in the first hours of the morning after the rain. Fortunately, soon after, everyone was accounted for.
Over the next days, we shifted as much reporting capacity as possible to the rain’s aftermath. It took two days for the flood to travel down some creeks, causing more harm. Several highway sections suffered heavy damage, houses were swallowed by a giant hole opening up in Erfstadt-Blessem, and the news was picked up around the world.
We quickly set up a donation campaign, which collected more than €4 million from our readers. We also commited ourselves publicly reporting extensively on the aftermath and reconstruction efforts over the coming years.
With respect to the paywall, after two weeks, we gradually moved back to “normal,” with a freemium paywall on most major stories researched and written by our staff reporters regarding the floodings.
Banner photo credit: Bezirksregierung Köln.