Major Publishers Take Down Paywalls for Coronavirus Coverage

An interesting decision as some organizations have recently instituted them

An illustration of newspapers near brick
More media organizations are putting coronavirus coverage in front of their paywalls. Source: Pixabay, Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Key insights:

Midterm elections, massive snowstorms and now coronavirus. Those are the coverage areas so important to the public that publications have been willing to make articles about these things free to read.

U.S.-based media organizations have been tasked with bending to the quick-moving whims of coronavirus all week as more cases of the virus are discovered in the U.S., working to give guidelines to journalists on best reporting practices as they repackage and create new products to address the widespread pandemic. Most news organizations, especially those with New York City as its headquarters, have even encouraged—if not required—staffers to work from home if they can.

Publishers from The Atlantic and The Philadelphia Inquirer to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have each made coronavirus coverage available to non-subscribers. The decision for these outlets was an easy one, even for those who have recently put up paywalls as a way to get people to pay for subscriptions or memberships.

“This is a public health emergency. If we have information that’s important for people to read, I’m not sure how ethical it would be to keep that from them if they didn’t give me their credit card,” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, told Adweek, noting that the outlet made some coronavirus coverage available for free on Tuesday. “We didn’t go into journalism to sell subscriptions. We went in, with any luck, to inform and enlighten the public. And help people.”

It’s the first time The Atlantic has moved coverage outside of the paywall since it went live last year. And it’s an issue more publications are grappling with, particularly after many more of them created paywalls in the last couple of years.

Coverage on the virus on Bloomberg.com, which created its digital membership program in 2018, is in front of the paywall “for free indefinitely,” a spokesperson said. The New York Times also has a page accessible to everyone without a subscription and a free coronavirus-centric newsletter.

The move very well may be good for business.

“Offering free information on the coronavirus offers an opportunity to reach new customers [and] readers, who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed by the content,” said Tom Meyvis, professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The Los Angeles Times has a free landing page and newsletter and considers several factors when weighing whether to lift the paywall for a particular coverage area, including whether it affects people in its community, can offer significant and unique coverage of the topic. “This strikes a balance between providing a public service, while things continue to evolve quickly, and placing a value on our news products,” a spokesperson said.

The Wall Street Journal’s teams are feeding a live page that is available to read without a subscription and a new daily video series will begin Monday, free of charge. The complimentary coverage will also be highlighted on the website’s main landing page beginning next week.

“For over a month, we have been making key pieces of important coronavirus content open to read for free and will continue to do so as we serve the public on this story,” said Louise Story, WSJ’s chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer, in a statement.

Other industries might also win over new consumers and attention by changing how they operate in the face of coronavirus, said Mark Beal, assistant professor of professional practice in public relations at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information.

“We’re going to start seeing certain brands and media companies and others stepping up and taking a more purposeful approach and putting aside profits for the moment and prioritizing purpose,” Beal said.


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
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