Dropping the paywall: Are newspapers dropping the ball?

The New York Times website is free during the US election, in what is now a big news day tradition

The New York Times has temporarily dropped its digital paywall, opting to showcase its presidential election delicacies without restriction for a period of 72 hours.

Anyone who fancies it can feast on the carcass of this appalling campaign at the New York Times buffet, with no messages popping up to effectively tell them to pay up or dine elsewhere. It's a popular move, and not unique – the Washington Post will also dispense with its paywall for election day.

Non-subscribers need no special offer to be familiar with these venerated US newspaper publishers. Both operate what is known as a “soft” or metered paywall, allowing readers to nibble before asking them to subscribe.

The New York Times didn't use the word "paywall" in its announcement. News groups are not fond of the standard industry term for charging for online access, conjuring up as it does images of bricks and barriers. "Paywall" is, perhaps, just a little too blunt a way to communicate to readers that journalism needs funding from the pockets of readers to be sustained. Instead, the New York Times said nice things, offering "open access on web and apps" and "inviting readers to take advantage of its reporting, analysis and commentary".


The move is now starting to look like tradition. Four years ago, the paper also took down its paywall for election day, while Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal did the same with its hard paywall. (The Washington Post, now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, only introduced its paywall in 2013.)

Boston marathon bombings

The phenomenon of the paywall drop for big news events has become well established: Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 was one of several storms to trigger their suspension at US titles, while the Boston marathon bombing in April 2013 was another.

When news groups ditch their usual business models in response to emergencies in this way, they do and say two things simultaneously. They stake their claim to being a vital public service, implying with a conveniently blind eye to their free-access competitors that without their free provision of facts, the population would be deprived of the localised information they need to get home safely. But they also exploit that emergency to promote their product.

Today's election is not, technically, an emergency, although in Trump it threatens to unleash on the world a force nastier and less predictable than any weather event. "Independent journalism is crucial to democracy," ventured New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, "and I believe there is no better time to show readers the type of original journalism the New York Times creates every day."

While the first part of this statement is obviously true, the second part reads like the sales pitch it equally obviously is.

This week, the wares being put in the shop window are the accuracy of the statistical analysis, the insights and updates gleaned from top-level sources and the entertainment value of finely turned-out sentences. In pure business jargon, it is the “added value” that is on display.

But while dropping the paywall for big national events may provide a one-off advertising boost, thanks to the spikes in web and app traffic, are elections and weather emergencies the most effective time to try to convert non-subscribers to subscribers?

Earlier this year, the Financial Times pulled off what appears to be one of the most successful paywall drops ever when its 24-hour open access policy on the day of the Brexit referendum led to a 600 per cent spike in subscription sales the following weekend (compared to an average weekend). This was a job well done. But the Remain-favouring Financial Times and Brexit may be an inimitable case of a specialist title capitalising as best it could from a bizarre political crisis.

Price tag

Going free during a hurricane might emphasise the public service character of a news title, but it doesn’t sit very neatly with the longer-term message that journalism should have a price tag. Indeed, some readers, if they think about it at all, may simply come to expect that the paywall will be dropped for each and every emergency. The incentive to subscribe is barely touched.

Elections, too, are times of intense media noise in which the total available audience swells beautifully. But a chunk of the "extra" readers will disappear soon afterwards, no matter what. The audience that dips into the New York Times or the Washington Post this week may not even clock that they are being granted a free trial. They may be rather too worried about the outcome of the election to glance at the masthead.

Running “open access” promotions during less frenzied periods of the news cycle might lure fewer casual browsers, but at least the readers who do consciously sample the goods would more likely get around to evaluating the product on sale.