Why the uptick in paywalls is a problem for PR pros

As publications look to grow their revenue, PR pros must adjust to the changing media landscape. Here’s why you shouldn’t shrug off increasingly gated content.

Public relations pros face constant challenges.

Keeping up with the evolution of PR, as new technology and tools come onto the scene. Staying on top of crisis communications, in a time when social media can spread negative news like wildfire. Dealing with the fact that there are now at least four PR pros for every journalist.

Now, they have a new challenge: Paywalls.

As publications continue to struggle and look for ways to bring in more revenue, an increasing number are erecting digital barriers to gate content. While this has always been the case with some publications, we see it happening now with everything from local business journals to The Wall Street Journal.

In recent months, we’ve seen the Chicago Sun-Times, Wired and Vanity Fair add paywalls. Bloomberg just added one. The Atlantic has reinstated its paywall 10 years after it made the decision to remove it.

“By putting up a paywall, The Atlantic joins a raft of publications, including Wired, Business Insider and CNN, that have announced plans to launch paid products recently to diversify their revenue in a digital ad market increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

How it affects PR pros

Even if they see why it may make sense for the publications, PR pros must consider how this impacts what they do.

The struggle to earn media coverage is only growing, and it’s already an uphill battle. When you garner coverage for your clients, one of the first things you want to do is to share it.

Not so fast. The paywall might prevent you from sharing the piece.

Clients aren’t too keen on this, and who can blame them? They’ve watched and worked with you as you’ve pitched the story and fostered it along, anxiously awaiting its publication—only to be stymied when they find they can’t share it with their audiences.

While this affects PR pros and their clients, it also affects journalists. When one of our local publications suddenly began gating a good portion of its content, one of the reporters I work with shared their frustration. Journalists want their work to be shared. So how can this be good for them?

The bottom line for publications

Of course, publications want everyone to buy a subscription. But it isn’t realistic to expect every person in your audience to subscribe.

“I think the paywall craze which is sweeping the media herd will be a big reality check for the news and magazine publishers,” says Om Malik, founder of Gigaom. “So many of them are drinking their own spiked kool-aid. They will soon realize the size of their ‘real audience’ and will soon realize that they don’t pass the ‘value for money’ threshold. There are very few publications that have a feeling of must-reads and must-haves.”

“Ultimately, it’s a complex issue, especially for people in my field,” says Igor Studenkov, a freelance reporter for several Chicago area newspapers. “The issue of paywalls is complicated.”

“It’s a tradeoff—you get a source of revenue, while on the other hand, you limit the ability to share articles online,” he says. “For example, when the New York Daily News put a paywall up, its views went down dramatically.”

“Even with a rock-bottom paywall price….traffic is down sharply,” the New York Post reported. In February, page views for the New York Daily News “plummeted a staggering 45 percent over the same month last year, according to comScore, to 109 million from 197 million.”

“It comes back to how both print and online outlets are desperately trying to find a revenue model that works,” continued Studenkov. “There might be a better way to do it and figure out a way to balance the needs.”

Could publications make it more affordable, perhaps by charging per article versus requiring a subscription to view articles?

What current industry insiders think

“If you help a reporter with their story, the expectation on both sides should be that you’ll get a copy of it for free,” says Anjie Coplin, a communications professional in the healthcare industry.

Other publications will wait a few days before putting the story behind the paywall. Still others (like Harvard Business Review) will allow you to view a few articles each month before expecting you to pay.Financial Times says your first three are on the house. The Atlantic gives you 10.

PR pros will have to monitor the paywall quandary to see how it plays out. As change is a constant in the media world, chances are it will continue to evolve.

In the meantime, be aware of setting expectations for your clients before they realize the article they’ve been looking forward to sharing can’t be shared. 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.

How are you adjusting to the increased use of paywalls, PR Daily readers?

Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PRisUs or connect with her on LinkedIn. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

(Image via)

COMMENT

PR Daily News Feed

Sign up to receive the latest articles from PR Daily directly in your inbox.