MARCH 2020 - Paywalls, COVID-19, and the public perception of Journalism

This is a photo illustration of the COVID-19 pages for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. These dashboards have no paywall and are accessible to all readers, providing vital coronavirus coverage for free. (Courtesy of Brianna Andrade)

Written by: Brianna Andrade


News consumption skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a Parsley study reporting a 30% total increase in page views year over year. A recent Nielsen study found that news consumption rose an incredible 215% in the United States in March 2020 and continued to climb for months. This surge in readership was of course welcomed by news organizations but forced newsrooms to face a tough decision: whether or not to drop their paywalls.

This graph illustrates the 215% increase in news consumption in March of this year as opposed to March of 2019. The coronavirus crisis has led to an increase in news consumption worldwide. (Courtesy Nielsen) 

Paywalls have become the new standard for major news publications. According to the American Press Institute, 78% of US print media firms have a digital subscription model that can generate

a 20% to 24% increase in total revenue. A report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found news media owners still rely heavily on subscription fees, with 50% of media executives labeling them as a main avenue of income. 

This is a photo illustration of the COVID-19 pages for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. …………..These dashboards have no paywall and are accessible to all readers, providing vital coronavirus coverage for free. (Courtesy of Brianna Andrade) 

Despite its importance and inherent financial ramifications, the New York Times and other major news publications like Wall Street Journaland Washington Post made the decision to drop their paywalls and provide crucial coronavirus coverage for free. Publishing companies McClatchy and Gannett have also dropped their paywalls on coronavirus coverage across all of their publications, citing the commitment as an important part of journalism’s dedication to public service and the health of local communities. Their choice to do so is noble, and further emphasizes the ethical purpose of journalism and its crucial role in public service.

The American Press Institute states the main purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. It’s clear just how important that purpose has become in the midst of the pandemic. The public has overwhelmingly turned to the news not only for the vital information they need to make daily decisions about their personal health, but also to understand the heightened sociopolitical climate that has ensued from the COVID-19 crisis that directly affects their communities and society at large. In a year where unemployment rose higher in three months than it did in two years of the Great Recession, leaving 20.5 million Americans without a stable income, for many the decision to pay for news might pale in importance to 

meeting basic needs. 

This graph showcases the unemployment rate in the United States in the first three months of the pandemic. As of May 

2020, the unemployment peak was 5% higher than the peak of the Great Recession. (Courtesy Pew Research Center)

Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership highlights the importance of accessible journalism amid the pandemic in an interview with Poynter. “In times of crisis, information becomes more akin to emergency room care. As a critical public service, journalists have to do something to make their information accessible to those who might not be able to pay.” 

Journalism is not only a critical public service in the ordinary sense but was transformed into an essential public health resource  intersecting media and medicine during the global pandemic crisis, according to Beth Blauer, executive director and founder of the Center for Government Excellence at John Hopkins University. “Media is taking on a public health role. We are having to rely on the media to get the right information out to the public.” 

This is a website screenshot of the Preamble of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. It states ethical journalism works to ensure a free exchange of information. Amid the pandemic, the news media have lived up to this mission. (Courtesy Society of Professional Journalists). 

Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information, according to The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Two main principles of ethical journalism are to act

independently and to minimize harm. Acting independently reminds journalists “the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” Minimizing harm asks journalists to consider the distinction between legal access to information and “the ethical justification to publish or broadcast” while assessing “the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” 

It is clear that the news media is fulfilling their obligation to serve the public by ensuring free and accessible coronavirus coverage to all. They are also minimizing harm by not balancing their own legal access against the moral obligation to publish, but by emphasizing the public’s access to information against their own ethical duty in broadcasting free coverage. Further, the “reach and permanence” of published information will almost certainly hold “long term implications” on the health and betterment of society. In fact, these efforts have already started to make an impact in combating the spread of COVID-19

This is a website screenshot from The City, a New York based newspaper that provides in depth COVID-19 tracking amid the pandemic. The City, along with other local news outlets, have successfully chartered COVID-19 cases on the local and county level. (Courtesy The City)

According to the Knight Foundation, local news has made a tremendous impact in their coverage of COVID-19 as new technology initiatives at local media outlets help combat the spread of the virus. By providing interactive tracking maps, news organizations like New York’s The City and Michigan’s Bridge Magazine have comprehensively chartered COVID-19 cases in varying countries and neighborhoods to report the risk and rate of transmission in surrounding areas. 

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. An April 2020 Pew Research report found that 59% of people say the news gives them the information they need, 48% believe coverage is working for the benefit of the public, and 52% believe it is helping the country overall. These findings stand as a testament to the hard work and difficulties the news industry has had to endure on behalf of the greater good. 

In times of crisis, the purpose of journalism and the role it plays in the lives of the public becomes more evident. By making crucial coronavirus reporting free, the news media reminded the American people that the true mission of journalism matters more than their bottom lines. 


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