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Why should newspapers not give free news during crises?

Strategy

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Free News

In times of crisis, a widely discussed issue is whether or not newspapers should release news for free.

Some of my clients are newspapers and I see the discussion in several spheres: direction, commercial, writing, subscribers and readers. I will try to develop a reasoning about why newspapers should not give free news during crises.

Public utility and trend

We can look at this subject from two basic perspectives: short term and long term.

Short-term free news

Disseminating news for free can be interesting from the point of view of traffic generation (for the newspaper) and keep the informed society (reader).

Most newspapers during COVID-19 offered free coverage or lowered their walls to cover the crisis. Some took advantage of the increased traffic (as people tried to find out more) to capture more subscribers.

The vehicles that used smart calls, within their stories, requesting support from readers managed to considerably increase the volume of subscribers and in some cases even subscribers.

If your newspaper did this during a crisis, congratulations! Most likely managed to capture a qualified lead, which identifies with your vehicle, or a subscriber who saw value in your offer.

All right in relation to the short term (as long as you have captured some subscribers).

Read too: "Objectivity and journalistic perspective

Free long-term news

Here lies the danger.

If you offer news for free only once, ok. The problem is in doing this in every crisis.

I remember that in the truckers' strike of 2019 the newspapers did the same (they lowered their walls). And a year earlier they did it for another reason. And on the other hand, and so it was.

What happens here is that giving news for free in times of crisis becomes something expected. It is what people end up waiting for to happen.

Those who do are telling readers something like:

Do not worry! Every time something important happens, the news will be free.

It gets to the point where people don't appreciate it anymore and think it's an obligation. They classify newspapers as an essential and public service or anything else that justifies having free news.

Selfish behavior of the reader

Going through some comments in one of the newspapers that I consult with, I come across the following comments:

Readers' comments on paywall

Realize that this is not a montage. The 3 comments came in sequence (and with supporters who liked it).

The reader is being selfish, in some cases without realizing it. I like to think that it is not out of selfishness but that they just did not think enough before commenting.

If you have already made a similar comment or know someone who has done it, try it out. Answer these questions:

Why do you think journalists shouldn't be paid for their work? How will they pay rent, children's school, food, etc.?

You will likely respond or hear responses such as:

Of course, journalists must be paid. The news should be free!

What? Wait, I didn't understand you very well. Basically what they are saying is something like:

Journalists must be paid, but I also want the news to be free. I don't want to pay for it. Someone must pay this bill.

It is even worse when trying to justify that news should be free for everyone to have access to, especially the poorest.

Something like this:

Journalists must be paid, but I also want the news to be free. I don't want to help the poorest. Someone must help them.

I don't think I need to continue on this topic.

One weight, two measures

What makes a person think that someone should offer the fruit of their labor without receiving anything in return?

Did we happen to go to the supermarket and ask him to donate his entire supply of food to poor people? Do we go to a sporting goods store and ask them to donate their sneakers for free so that poor people can stay in shape? Do we ask doctors and nurses to work without pay?

How would you feel if someone came to you and said it was your duty to offer your services for free? Would you work under this condition?

Why are newspapers the only industry that apparently needs to donate their work for free to solve a social problem?

We are not going to solve the problem of poverty and social inequality by giving people free news.

Why then do people ask for free news?

People ask for free news because they think that all media outlets swim in money. This is not always true.

Look at a local newspaper in a city with less than 300 thousand inhabitants and you will see a very different reality from big portals or TV stations. And in the latter, there are also few that have a favorable financial situation.

Free news is a recent thing. Until the 90's you hardly found free news. I remember it was small and asked my mother to buy a newspaper or magazine eventually (we were unable to subscribe to a magazine or newspaper because it “was expensive”). Ask your parents or grandparents what it was like to subscribe to a newspaper in the 1980s.

Pay for news, a good newspaper, it was the obvious to do if you wanted to be well informed. This was not questioned. It was like paying for water, electricity, telephone, the market, etc.

Ah, Dilmar… but in times of crisis, the news should be free!

Damn it! They were not free during the Spanish Flu or during World War II, why should they be now? (Click on the images below to enlarge them)

So what has changed? Why do people think that news should be free these days?

Advertising, internet and technology companies

The first thing that changed was advertising. In the 80s and 90s, newspapers had a significant increase in advertising revenue. This led to the emergence of new newspapers with exclusively advertising revenue and with free distribution.

Read too: "Let's ban targeted advertising!

Then came the internet. It was a novelty and many newspapers started to publish their articles online, some experimentally and others as marketing. And, of course, as this was not the main focus of business, the articles were published for free for maximum exposure.

And then there were the new technology companies, focused on reaching as many people as possible using the money injected by their investors, and of course, giving everything for free.

We spent 10 years teaching people that money was not a concern, that scale was everything, that advertising was plentiful and that people should get what they wanted for free.

Few managed to survive. Google, Yahoo and later Facebook are some examples but they are exceptions. Few companies that offered free news survived. Do you remember how many portals there were in Brazil at the end of the 90s?

The free model never worked for them, they were only alive while their investors were putting in money. They either closed their doors or were sold / incorporated by some media company or larger company.

Crisis 2008

The big coup in the newspapers happened in 2008. After the 2008 financial crisis, newspaper revenues from advertising collapsed.

Allied to this, advertisers directed their resources (now scarcer) predominantly to Google, YouTube and Facebook.

And now, how do you keep newspapers open and profitable?

Subscriptions. This trend started to intensify after 2008 but is still maturing. Many people still think that everything on the internet should be free, including news.

Okay. We no longer have advertising revenue and the subscription model is not yet supported. Who to turn to? Who will pay the bill for those who do not want to pay for news or for poor people? The riches? The government?

Does not make sense!

Would you like newspapers to be sponsored by the government and have to collect a tax like “ISJQN”(Tax on journalism of any kind)?

How to resolve the issue of free news?

Think…

  • Disseminating the news for free, did not work;
  • Convincing billionaires to run non-profit news organizations also didn't work (no billionaires like to lose money);
  • The government should make the news free for everyone, it will not work either (if it works it will be at a very high cost of press freedom).

News should not be free. It is a valuable product that people should be paying for. It's that simple!

The more we show people that news can / should be free or that, during a crisis (whenever something important happens) should be free, the more we hurt the industry.

We can see the damage this is causing. We can see how people's behavior is slowly but surely leading them to think (and even demand) that the news be free. We can see how the public gets angry if we don't give free news during a crisis.

Nobody gets angry at the supermarket for selling food during a crisis. But the point is that markets have never given people that option. The newspaper industry does.

Newspapers need to make people want to support them. It doesn't have to be a total paywall. There are several ways to do this. Regardless of the path chosen, news must be of value to readers.

Perhaps that is not what newspapers are offering today.

Keep reading: "SEO tips for publishers: 10 ways to increase your audience

Keep reading: "Less content = more conversion

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