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With major elections ahead, what should news media companies do about paywalls?

By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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In 2024, 76 countries — including the U.S., European Union, and India — will hold national elections. That makes it a big year for the news cycle.

During this week’s Webinar, Greg Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and head of the Readers First Initiative, zeroed in on what that means for news media companies. Should news publishers unlock their paywalls for this year’s elections? examined why companies might consider dropping paywalls. 

“We know that in the past, news cycles very much drove demand for online news and subscriptions. In a way, the news cycle makes or breaks news publishers,” Piechota said, noting that when important news breaks, audiences turn to trusted news brands to get the facts. In the past, this has translated into subscription revenue, and many companies may be looking forward to the crucial role of the elections in boosting subscriptions.

With so many big elections this year, news media companies could see a bump in subscriptions.
With so many big elections this year, news media companies could see a bump in subscriptions.

However, that might not be the best way to present journalism, according to Richard Stengel.

In an article published in The Atlantic, the former editor of Time Magazine and author of Information Wars encouraged news companies to suspend paywalls for election coverage during this critical election year: “Democracy does not die in darkness,” Stengel wrote. “It dies behind paywalls.”

The argument for unlocking paywalls

Stengel presented his case for making election coverage available at no charge, emphasising that democracy is a machine that “… depends on the free flow of good information.” Voters rely on free-flowing information to make their decisions, and it has never been more important to put quality information in front of them.

“The U.S., in this presidential election, is under a unique existential threat to the idea of democracy,” Stengel said. “The First Amendment in the U.S., I believe, protects the press so that the press can protect democracy.”

Piechota acknowledged the importance of that mission, but also noted that paywalls are the fastest-growing form of revenue for media companies: “So it’s a big ask to tell publishers in this very special year, ‘You could actually sell a lot of subscriptions, [but] you should not do it.’”

Stengel said that he’d like to see “a more open news environment” that appeals to voters who are passive news consumers and aren’t likely to subscribe to newspapers like The New York Times.

“Particularly for users like that, the information that is free and comes to them is more likely to be disinformation or misinformation or malformation,” Stengel said. “I’m arguing for a more open news environment about election news in an election cycle so that the chance that a free New York Times article comes to them is higher in that kind of news environment than in this classic paywall environment.”

With the amount of disinformation continuing to grow, Stengel said news companies should look at how they can offset it by making sure quality information is freely available: “Disinformation is free. I just want to have a news environment where there’s a kind of fairness between good information and bad information.”

Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota was joined by Richard Stengel, Anna Åberg, and Nashua Gallagher to discuss whether paywalls should be unlocked for this election news cycle.
Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota was joined by Richard Stengel, Anna Åberg, and Nashua Gallagher to discuss whether paywalls should be unlocked for this election news cycle.

Why Dagens Nyheter dropped its paywall

Anna Åberg, managing editor of Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, said she has seen first-hand the benefits of unlocking election content. The first time the company made content free was for young readers who were voting for the first or second time during the 2018 elections.

“Our focus was to reach out to the young readers who were not subscribers. We had this idea that somehow we wanted them to get access to this content for free,” she explained. “So we offered everyone who was 25 or younger a free subscription that would end automatically [after the elections].”

It became one of the company’s most successful campaigns, with word of the offer spreading quickly and some 20,000 students signing up. A few weeks before the election, Dagens Nyheter decided to make a subscription free to everyone, not just students, and another 50,000 people signed up. The subscriptions ended automatically so users were not required to provide payment details.

“But since we had their e-mail address, we sent them an offer to continue as subscribers and one-third of them signed up for a paid subscription,” Åberg said. One year later, 60% of those new subscribers were still on board. “So 18,000 bought a subscription afterwards and then 10,000 people were still subscribers one year later.”

Dagens Nyheter took a similar approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, making pandemic coverage free.

“We’ve never seen a traffic boost like that before,” Åberg said. “Once we had that traffic with lots and lots of new readers, we figured maybe we should launch another one of those free subscription campaigns just to try it out.”

The campaign saw 270,000 people sign up — something she said is “huge” for a country of 10 million. And it resulted in about one-third of users signing up for a paid subscription. Churn rates for these subscribers have been similar to other subscribers, and the engagement from them has been the same or higher, Åberg said:

“I can’t say that it will work in the same way for everyone. And that’s why I said in the beginning that there are publishers who can afford to risk it because it is a risk. I mean it was a moral decision, not a business decision. We had no idea that it would work this good.”

Paying for quality journalism at Neue Zuercher Zeitung

Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ) in Switzerland has a different outlook on paying for content: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Nashua Gallagher, lead product manager, “but everyone should be invited to the table.”

She suggested that while good quality journalism should be paid for, different approaches can be employed for different audiences.

After experimenting extensively during “the COVID years” between 2020 and 2022, NZZ now tends to “err on the side of closing the paywall.” That’s largely because its experimentation yielded results much different than those shared by Dagens Nyheter.

“We loosened the paywall, then we tightened it, but we found out the one factor that was common with all these user groups was that people were still predominantly only reading COVID content,” Gallagher said.

That changed the company’s mission.

“Our challenge was to focus on engagement and getting them to read a bit more broadly because whether it’s an election, whether it’s a war, whether it’s whatever news event it might be — and whether you tighten it or loosen it — if we really want to drive the mission of journalism, it’s really worth thinking beyond the paywall.”

NZZ puts a lot of thought into where people encounter its journalism and for what reason — and what can be done to enable them, she said. As a result, the company has found ways to make the coverage more dynamic than just appearing on its Web site:

“We distribute during election periods or periods where we think that our coverage or quality coverage in general would help with the debate. We do this on external platforms through advertising.”

The company also offers different pricing strategies for different markets based on geography as well as for segments like students.

“We think of a bit more of the long-term approach; what do we actually need to build both for our editors and for our newsroom, but also for our users that is interesting?” Gallagher explained. “What can we do that is not just hitting a paywall that we can use as storytelling features to engage users? So it is not just about the paywall, it’s not just about the offers, it’s really about how do you bring your journalism to life and the storytelling to life and how do you connect this with a whole myriad of different user needs.”

About Paula Felps

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