Research, best practices for the COVID-19 content and paywall dilemmas publishers face

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


With digital subscription starts surging during today’s COVID-19 crisis, news publishers are facing two core dilemmas:

  • Digital engagement: Should a publisher unlock coverage about COVID-19? And how do they engage new readers and new subscribers during today’s lockdown and keep them when this is all over?
  • Responsibility: Is your greater responsibility to provide the public easy access to coronavirus information or to survive as a business? 

An INMA Readers-First Meet-up delved into these questions on Wednesday, with Grzegorz Piechota, INMA Researcher-in-Residence, along with Allessio Balbi, managing digital editor for La Repubblica, and Dan Oshinsky, founder of Inbox Collective.

An INMA Readers-First Meet-up looked at strategies for the traffic and subscription bump from COVID-19.
An INMA Readers-First Meet-up looked at strategies for the traffic and subscription bump from COVID-19.

Piechota opened by talking about the COVID-19 news bump. Europe is seeing this growth in readership begin to flatten, while it’s still climbing in the United States.

“There is a correlation actually between the number of infections, and the number of people on newspaper sites, and the growth in subscriptions,” Piechota said. Therefore, since the pandemic struck in Europe, particularly Italy, before the United States, the correlating news readers are higher there.

The growth has started to flatten in Europe, but still climbing in United States.
The growth has started to flatten in Europe, but still climbing in United States.

Another factor is that more European news sites have kept their content locked behind the paywall, unlike the U.S. trend of keeping COVID-19 content in front of the paywall, Piechota said: “Many European newspapers started to offer very low introductory prices. So instead of giving away content for free, they gave very inexpensive trial subscriptions, and this helped them actually gain many subscribers.”

Those low-price subscribers will likely churn more, Piechota added, but that’s not a given.

He conducted a poll of the Webinar attendees and found:

  • 49% of them were currently giving away coronavirus coverage for free.
  • 20% of participants were still considering their strategy.
  • 20% reported that they had not unlocked any content.

Anatomy of a bump

Piechota then looked at where all the new users are coming from. Using a mid-sized European news site as an example, he examined the changes between segments in January and March 2020, particularly to see if the increased traffic was mostly from new or existing visitors.

This publisher had 2.29 million new users in March over January. Fly-bys had increased from 1.18 to 1.72 million, light users went from 762,000 to 963,000, and engaged users went from 270,000 to 456,000.

“Look at where these engaged users come from,” Piechota said. “They don’t come from the traffic bump. They come from visitors who were already on the site in January.” These visitors either stayed engaged through March or became even more engaged, resulting in the numbers spike. “Or they were light users in January, and they became more engaged by March.”

These engaged readers weren’t magically drawn by the coronavirus, Piechota pointed out. It took them several weeks to develop their engagement. He revealed some numbers in each of the user segments in relation to how likely they were to subscribe:

  • Fly-bys were 16% likely to subscribe (representing 86,000 new subscriptions).
  • Light users were 26% likely to subscribe (representing 251,000 new subscriptions).
  • Engaged users were 41% likely to subscribe (representing 187,000 new subscriptions).
  • Addicted users were 54% likely to subscribe (representing 114,000 new subscriptions).

The data for this case study was supplied by Deep.BI, a data analytics company. For more, see their report.

These numbers mean a lot for the strategy of news publishers in terms of how they think about engagement and offers, he said: “You need to focus your offers on those engaged and addicted segments — and these are not new people to your site.”

When it comes to appealing to new users to a publisher site, Piechota said, the focus should be on building habit and engagement, and clearly demonstrating the value of the news brand. “People don’t just jump from fly-by to addicted.”

Tactic: Launch introductory offers to speed acquisition

“We have those engaged and addicted people,” Piechota said. “How do we actually help them make the decision to purchase right now? We can do it with pricing, with introductory offers.” This should be a limited time offer.

Launching new introductory subscription offers can speed acquisition.
Launching new introductory subscription offers can speed acquisition.

The trade-off for these offers is that the resulting customers are easier to acquire, but harder to retain.

“When we think about these successes in acquisition, I believe it’s important to remember that we should evaluate the success not only based on whether we acquired more customers, but whether these customers actually stay with us,” he said.

Piechota examined churn rates for the various segments.

  • Offers without free trial periods had an average 16.5% churn rate in the first month. “This is because they self-selected,” Piechota said.
  • Paid trials had a 28.3% rate of not converting to full price.
  • Free trials had a 41.1% churn rate of not converting.

To paywall or not to paywall?

There is a business argument and an ethical argument to be made over whether or not to put COVID-19 related news behind a paywall. On the ethical side, many argue journalists have a moral imperative to make publicly available information of this nature.

News publishers also have a moral duty to their employees and shareholders. They can provide public service news when it’s the right thing to do, but they can’t do it for free forever.

With previous important public health surges in news consumption, publishers knew that if they opened up their content, they would largely make up for that in increased advertising revenue. The current coronavirus pandemic, however, is completely different. There’s no demand from advertisers right now.

Case study from La Repubblica in Italy

Allessio Balbi, managing digital editor for La Repubblica out of Rome, took the floor next to discuss the current situation in Italy.

From a public health point of view, Balbi said things are starting to get a little better every day.

“It is still very complicated, and it is hard also from an economic and social point of view. We are in total lockdown from the beginning of March.”

Newsstands are open, as they were deemed to deliver essential goods. But many people are not going to newsstands while isolating at home, so sales and distribution of print newspapers are down.

“We had a huge bump in traffic to news Web sites,” Balbi said. La Repubblica readership jumped from three million to almost nine million. The publisher sees peak traffic around 6 p.m., when the Italian government releases daily updates on the situation.

“People are developing a kind of daily routine to come to our Web site at 6 p.m. to be informed about new developments.”

La Republicca's audience changed, increasing in numbers and time of reading.
La Republicca's audience changed, increasing in numbers and time of reading.

Balbi shared information about how La Repubblica’s audience has changed. At the start of the year, the audience accessed 53% on mobile and 47% on desktop. Those numbers have changed, with desktop taking the majority as a device — 56% of La Repubblica readers now are viewing on desktop, versus 44% on mobile. He attributed this to the fact that people are reading at home and not as much on mobile as they travel back and forth from work or other places.

Balbi shared how the La Repubblica Web site has changed.

“We have a large amount of free content that we update in real time 24 hours a day, and we still are producing this kind of content that is the largest part of our production. All the information about the virus and news about the pandemic we are giving for free.”

La Repubblica also has premium offerings that are paid, such as the evening edition (which is only available to subscribers) and podcasts. “We also launched an offer of €1 a month for three months to new subscribers, and consequently we increased the number of premium articles. They were about 90% free versus 10% premium [articles] before the crisis. They are now 70% free and 30% premium. We have a growth of more than 50% in subscriptions.”

This growth has led the team to look at what offerings they can make to new subscribers and how they can personalise to them. One such offer was to release an additional 9 p.m. premium daily edition just for subscribers. There is also a subscriber-only Q&A section, in which journalists answer reader questions.

At the bottom of each article on the Web site, there is an appeal from the editor-in-chief to support the journalism they are bringing during this time of crisis.

La Repubblica also created two new pop-up newsletters: Antivirus, with the latest news and commentary on COVID-19; and Restando a Casa (Staying at Home), with daily tips for managing the lockdown. These each have around 10,000 subscribers.

“During this crisis, it’s like people have rediscovered the need for traditional, ‘let me know’ journalism,” Balbi said. They are trying to avoid fake news and relying on trusted media. “There is a great need for our work to verify and check these kinds of stories.”

Best practices in pop-up newsletters

Dan Oshinsky, founder of Inbox Collective, was up next to discuss newsletter strategy for publishers. “I wanted to highlight a few big opportunities here for you and for your readers.”

Dan Oshinsky of Inbox Collective suggested that some publishers might build COVID-19 coverage into existing newsletters.
Dan Oshinsky of Inbox Collective suggested that some publishers might build COVID-19 coverage into existing newsletters.

For many publishers, it might make sense to build COVID-19 coverage into existing newsletters and products. “If you already have a daily newsletter, how can you build the best coverage into that, without launching a new, separate newsletter? It may make sense to take your existing product and add a section to that, to build a connection with your audience at a moment of crisis like this.”

Oshinsky also cautioned to be careful with curation and to select content carefully. It’s very easy for readers to be overwhelmed with information right now. “At the end of the day, newsletters are a vehicle to get readers from the e-mail onto your site. Once they’re there, then you can work to try to deepen engagement and get viewers to read more.”

Like with La Republicca’s surge at 6 p.m., a lot of viewers worldwide are getting into the habit of checking in with news sites for an end-of-the-day recap. “It may make sense, if you have a morning newsletter, to change the send time for your newsletter.” Think about the timing of when information is released in the given geographic area, and the right timing for those viewers.

Pop-up newsletter topics: “You don’t have to launch a coronavirus newsletter that’s just straight news coverage,” Oshinsky said. Other potential content areas include:

  • Resources for families.
  • Guides to food needs in your area.
  • Guides to ways of supporting others in the community.

Onboard your readers: “This is so important,” Oshinsky said. “Not just for coronavirus newsletters but for all newsletters. Make sure when readers sign up that you are welcoming them and guiding them through the next steps.”

He suggested publishers might review their current onboarding process and possibly revise it. Other important things to think about in the onboarding process are:

  • Adjust the onboarding e-mails to reflect the crisis.
  • Offer evergreen resources to help.
  • Introduce your team.
  • Ask readers to support your work.

Adjust the way you market your newsletters: “You may want to adjust your strategy and think about creating coronavirus-specific pop-ups,” Oshinsky said. Modify calls to action to reflect the current crisis, tell readers what they will get from the newsletter, and when they will get it.

Adjust the way your newsletters are marketed, including calls to action.
Adjust the way your newsletters are marketed, including calls to action.

He also recommended adding a call to action to the top of all COVID-19 stories. He had some suggestions to consider when asking readers to support the work of journalism.

“Right now we are in a time of crisis. People are losing their jobs, there’s a lot of economic uncertainty, and it’s something you have to be very careful about how you ask readers.”

He offered a few pieces of advice:

  • Be human. These aren’t just your readers, they’re your neighbours. Keep things personal and show empathy.
  • Remind readers of the value of your work. Your reporters are working hard to keep the readers informed and safe about what’s happening in your area. Remind readers of the value of well-reported local news at a time like this.
  • Give readers another way to support you. Many who want to give, are unable to do so at this time. Offer another opportunity — for example, please share this newsletter with a friend.

“Be personal,” Oshinsky concluded. “The more you can be empathetic with your readers and show them that you are there to support them at this time, the better.”

Oshinsky is offering an hour-long phone consultation — free of charge — with any news organization that wants to talk about their COVID-19 newsletter strategy. To set this up, reach out at

About Shelley Seale

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