Journalism vs. commerce: When is the news important enough to drop a paywall?

As Hurricane Sandy advanced towards the eastern seaboard on Sunday, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal decided to lower the paywalls surrounding their content, presumably to allow readers to access potentially life-saving information about the hurricane and various emergency evacuation procedures. Definitely a noble and public-spirited goal — so noble that when I suggested on Twitter that part of the rationale might also be to promote their content and encourage people to subscribe, I was criticized for impugning the NYT’s motives. For me, the debate that followed highlighted the tension between the public or social value that newspapers have and their interests as commercial entities.

The New York Times has dropped its paywall before for similar incidents, including last year’s Hurricane Irene, but has kept the subscription barrier up for a host of other important news stories — including the death of Osama bin Laden. As a post at the Nieman Journalism Lab described last year, it’s not clear how the newspaper makes the decision about what to keep behind the wall and what to release to the general public. All the paper has said is that it is decided on a “case-by-case basis.” The Wall Street Journal also periodically removes certain stories from the paywall and makes them free of charge, but in many cases this appears to be a marketing move rather than an editorial one.

Public interest or smart business decision?

When I suggested on Twitter that the NYT might have removed the paywall for a combination of reasons — including the fact that the news was in the public interest, but also as a marketing strategy — I got bombarded with criticism from a number of people, including Branch co-founder Josh Miller, who suggested that this was somehow crass or unfair of me to even mention:


But why would it be unreasonable to assume the New York Times might make such a decision for a multitude of reasons? As I tried to argue in a conversation with Miller on his own platform, it seems pretty obvious that commercial or marketing or other business-related motives might be part of such a decision — especially in advance of the storm. After all, the NYT is a business and not a charitable entity or non-profit emergency information system, so why would ascribing commercial motives to it be unfair? I’m not arguing that crass commercialism was the only rationale, just one of many.

Another reason why the NYT or the WSJ might decide to drop their paywalls (as other newspapers including the Boston Globe and New York’s Newsday also did) is that emergency-related information about subway closures or street shutdowns or other preparations would to some extent be commoditized news — since versions of the same thing would be appearing on every television station, radio program and local news website — and therefore there wouldn’t be much value in keeping them behind a paywall in the first place. And anyone searching for that info from the NYT and being met with a subscription barrier would likely be doubly irritated, which is just bad business.

In a comment on Twitter, former Washington Post managing editor and now Wall Street Journal editor Raju Narisetti confirmed my suspicion that the decision was made at the WSJ for a number of reasons, some business-related and some public-interest related:


The key question: What is a newspaper for?

I think the debate over whether the NYT’s decision (or the WSJ’s) was made for purely public-spirited purposes highlights one of the dilemmas behind the rise of paywalls: namely, the tension between the public purpose that many media outlets feel they have — to spread important information as widely as possible to those affected by it — and the need to commercialize that information in order to make money. As more than one person pointed out, newspapers have always charged for the news in print, but the contrast between a paywall and the free spread of information is more obvious online, where the costs of distributing that information are a lot lower.

As Josh Stearns of Free Press asked on Twitter: “When is the news important enough to remove the paywall?” The answer is far from obvious. Several people noted that the hurricane was an imminent danger to people’s lives, and therefore it deserved to be outside the paywall — but what about some of the crucial issues that are at stake in the federal election? Are they not important enough or critical enough to deserve more widespread readership? Just because they may not be urgent enough to cause immediate physical harm doesn’t mean they aren’t important to people’s lives.


As I’ve tried to describe before, the question that is at the heart of this dilemma is: What is the purpose of a newspaper? Is it a vehicle for spreading public information that might help people — in which case it should be spread as far and wide as possible — or is it a business whose primary aim is to make money? There are obviously many who believe the former, or there wouldn’t have been such an outcry when Advance Publications said that it would be reducing the frequency of the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this year, which caused a storm of outrage in that city.

Newspapers have played the public-interest card for some time, and always when it suited their purposes. Perhaps it was never as true as some made it out to be, but it has become part of the mythos that surrounds them, and it is part of the reason why the response to paywalls from some readers has been less than enthusiastic. Events like Hurricane Sandy just make the tension between that vision and the reality of the newspaper business a lot more obvious — and as the NYT and more newspapers become primarily reader-funded, it is likely to become an even bigger issue.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and George Kelly