In a search for additional revenue, more online publications are erecting paywalls that require paid subscriptions to view articles.
The number of US readers who paid for online news over the past year increased four percentage points to 20%, according to the Reuters Digital News Report. More people are also paying online news subscriptions in other countries.
A few highly regarded publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, have had online subscription paywalls for years. Now publications ranging from local business journals to slick national consumer publications have adopted paywalls.
The Chicago Sun-Times, Wired, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, Business Insider and CNN are some of the media sources that have put up various levels of paywalls. Many build soft paywalls that allow readers to view a limited number of free articles a month or charge for only certain types of articles. Others provide only a “teaser” for articles and charge a fixed monthly fee to view any article in full.
Such paywalls present difficulties for public relations staffers and their clients. Paywalls stymie one of the main purposes of media placements: sharing content. PR pros can work hard to win media coverage that mentions their clients, only to have people see the message: “Continue reading by subscribing.”
Paywalls also create challenges for media monitoring and PR measurement. Obtaining a complete coverage of media content behind a paywall can be difficult.
Do Paywalls Benefit Publishers?
Publications’ reasoning for erecting paywalls is understandable, but their effectiveness remains questionable. The Reuters research indicates that paywalls mainly benefit a few national publications, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Between a third and half of all subscriptions go to a few big national brands – suggesting a “winner-takes-most” scenario. However, a significant minority of consumers now buys more than one subscription, often adding a local or specialist publication.
Media paywalls for online news remain controversial in both journalism and public relations circles. Some say they may save online news outlets by attracting desperately needed revenue; others warn that publications may be disappointed by the number of readers willing to pay. Research from PowerInbox shows that consumers overwhelmingly prefer to view free news stories with ads than to pay for the content.
Mandatory subscriptions for online news cause article views to drop – sometimes dramatically – which in turn causes advertising revenue to plunge. In the past, media outlets have put up paywalls only to later remove them because of significantly reduced readership. Journalists may disdain the paywalls since they decrease readership of their stories and their ability to share the articles on social media.
Many people fear that paywalls will increase information inequality. People with less money will depend more on social media and other low-quality news; those who can pay will obtain better information.
Whatever your views, the trend toward more media paywalls is clear.
How PR Can Circumvent Media Paywalls
For PR pros, a placement or media mention behind a paywall in a major publication like the Chicago Sun-Times or Bloomberg still contains significant value. Readers who pay may have greater value to PR than free-loaders. To counteract the probable reduction in readership of publications with paywalls, PR pros may grant fewer exclusives and try for more placements in more targeted publications such as suburban papers, niche consumer publications and trade journals.
PR departments and agencies also face the issue of paying the paywall fees to get access to the publications. There are various tricks to share content behind paywalls. The most obvious is to share passwords. In many large corporations, the library pays for an institutional subscription that allows multiple simultaneous users. Some suggest copying and pasting the article headline into a Google search, and then sharing the long hyperlink from search results.
Cross-company subscription-sharing tricks may risk violating copyright laws and damaging relationships with publishers and journalists. It’s important to share articles in a way that’s both ethical and financially responsible. These are some tips for obtaining copies of articles behind paywalls:
Buy the daily print copy in which the story appears. A single print copy is less expensive than a monthly digital subscription. Summarize it and circulate the summary to management.
If you use a print media monitoring service, the article is likely to show up in your next batch of print clips, provided that the article appeared in the print edition. The article may also show up in the email alerts and dashboard of your digital media monitoring and measurement service.
Some publications may send a PDF version of a story if asked. Some may charge a fee for the PDF.
PR may also lobby publishers to release data on actual number of views for each article. The publishers have the data in their Google analytics, but don’t release it to advertisers or PR. The data would make media measurement much more precise.
Buy a link to the article that can be shared, particularly if it’s a high-profile hit, advises Teak Media Communication. Many outlets sell unlocked links to an individual piece at a fraction of the cost of a subscription cost. Ask if they have a discount for nonprofits and institutions of higher learning.
Dealing with Media Paywall PR Issues
Inform clients of paywalls and set expectations while developing a media campaign to avoid surprises.
If paywalls restrict earned media opportunities, PR can place greater emphasis on social media promotions, podcasts, and other media.
Don’t blame journalists. Reporters don’t make decisions about subscriptions or advertising for their publications. They may disdain paywalls as much as PR pros since they typically look forward to sharing their articles.
“Be empathic with your journalistic colleagues, who probably want you to know that they wish you could share their work—without forcing you to pay for it,” urges Michelle Garrett, a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations.
Bottom Line: The increasing number of mandatory paid subscriptions for digital publications can reduce the number of readers and reduce the value of PR placements. Nonetheless, there remains great PR value in placement of articles and media mentions in major publications that require paid subscriptions. With the increasing number of paywalls, PR may wish to grant fewer exclusives and expand distribution of articles to additional publications. PR must also deal with the issue of paying for subscriptions to multiple publications.
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This article was first published on June 19, 2018, and updated on July 9, 2020.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.