How newspaper pay walls affect PR

The rise of online subscriptions for newspaper websites will impact public relations, although the effects will be minor, experts say.


Next week, The Los Angeles Times begins charging readers for access to content on its website. The paper said the pay wall will help offset revenue declines.

The L.A. Times joins a number of other newspapers erecting pay walls, including The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and Baltimore Sun. Gannett is building pay walls around 80 of its papers—although not its biggest title, USA Today—and the Chicago Tribune said it will soon charge for online content.

It’s likely that more papers will follow suit. In January, Vocus released its State of the Media report, in which it predicted the increasing setting up of pay walls in 2012.

“If the modern-brand newspaper hopes to survive and make money, pay walls are necessary,” David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus, said in the report.

People working in public relations shouldn’t worry about pay walls, say several PR professionals and media experts with whom PR Daily interviewed via email. The consumer barriers won’t significantly affect a news story’s reach nor impede a PR pro’s ability to perform research on a publication, reporter, or specific topic.

After all, pay walls aren’t impenetrable. The L.A. Times will give readers 15 free stories per month, a move similar to that of The New York Times, which offers 20 free stories. Plus, there are ways around these pay walls.

For example, copying the title of an article on the Times website and dropping it into a Google search provides free access to the story, explained Peter Himler, principle of Flatiron Communications. And there’s the social media element.

“A site like The New York Times has purposely allowed full access from links in social channels like Twitter and Facebook,” explained Peter Himler, who worked with the paper during its first, ill-fated attempt at charging for content, Times Select.

He said this allowance for social media sharing means walled access won’t limit the digital footprint for a client’s story. “As for the Financial Times—whose links on Twitter do not grant access to the full article—one could argue that it limits the publication’s influence,” Himler added.

Coates, a co-author of the State of the Media report, conceded that pay walls might lessen traffic on some sites. But that only underscores an important aspect of media relations: demographics.

“Most stories don’t go viral and are usually of interest to a specific demographic,” he told PR Daily. “A widespread reach isn’t necessarily the target. It’s all about reaching the demographic that cares about that story or issue.”

For that reason, pitching a story to a newspaper can still bring more eyeballs to the piece. After all, few blogs have the readership of a newspaper, Coates noted.

“Sure, if the blog site is highly read, for instance TechCrunch, and you have a story idea you would like the tech community to see, then it might be more advantageous than pitching the tech reporter at The New York Times,” said Coates. “However, if your pitch is regionally or locally based, the tech reporter at a local newspaper is probably the right person to pitch, regardless of the pay wall.”

Plus, the people reading a story behind a pay wall are probably part of a more engaged audience—they’re paying to read the content, which says a lot when nearly everyone on the Web is free, and they trust it. Readers prefer media they trust over those that offer scoops, according to a recent study from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. The study found that newspapers rank as the most credible news source.

That mentality might be informing the folks at the Boston Globe, which unveiled a pay wall unlike that of The New York Times or L.A. Times, explained Coates. The hybrid pay wall divides content onto two sites: Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.

“BostonGlobe.com features the newspaper’s print stories, exclusive reports, in-depth analysis and commentary, which can be read online and on multiple mobile devices for a fee of $3.99 a week,” Coates said. “Meanwhile, Boston.com remains free, offering breaking news, blogs, photo galleries, sports coverage, and some stories from the paper.

“That type of pay wall model could be the next wave of the future.”

Whichever approach newspapers take, pay walls will place a greater emphasis on content marketing, said communications consultant Shel Holtz. There will be an increased need for companies “to become content marketers and get their own stories out rather than rely solely on the mainstream press,” he asserted.

Content marketing, also known as brand journalism, is the practice of producing content that isn’t typical marketing copy. Instead, it’s a reported piece—or a useful or interesting column—written as if it could appear in a media outlet (and appropriately labeled, not passed off as objective journalism).

The Web browsers who aren’t subscribing to a newspaper’s content may turn to alternative sources to find information. Those sources might be blogs, online news sites (such as PR Daily and Ragan.com), or a brand’s page, Holtz said.

Of course, a major question is whether readers will actually read, watch, or listen to content from a brand over that from an independent media outlet.

“Only if they’re actually interested in what the company does,” Holtz said. “More and more, it’ll be what’s shared by friends and what they find in curated collections. If a solid, useful article from Acme Inc. shows up in my Paper.li daily, I’ll probably read it.”

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