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Oct. 10, 2019, 2:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How are paywalled news outlets preparing to serve residents in California’s mega-power shutoffs?

“If we’re going to have news that is paid for by audiences, we have to talk about the news that should never be behind paywalls.”

In what would be the world’s fifth-largest economy by itself, at least 800,000 but as many as 2 million residents have already lost power — on purpose — as California’s largest utility provider cut the power supply in fear of faulty equipment sparking wildfires.

It’s kind of mind-boggling how big it could get: 22 of the state’s 58 counties are affected by a “public-safety power shutoff” in the northern half of the state, ranging from Santa Cruz to Tahoe National Forest to Redding. The Santa Ana winds that usually come into full force in the fall, combined with dry conditions, are apparently putting the area at risk of recreating last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Powerful winds, ultra-dry conditions, and a downed power line — after the bankrupt utility company had warned it might shut off power but did not — contributed to that original spark. PG&E, the utility, said these widespread shutoffs might become “the new normal.”

No stop lights, no cellphone charging (but you can use your phone flashlight to find other flashlights, as this police department recommended), no classes, medications shuttled to other hospitals, and more. And this could stretch on for another five days or more.

There are a few places people can go for reliable information about this — though in this increasingly paywalled world, some are free, some not so much. The shutoffs are scary and serious, and national and local outlets are paying a lot of attention. The crisis brings up an important question that arises during a hurricane or other natural disaster, when some news outlets turn off their paywall:

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times are tracking the outages with live updates and maps of the outage areas, though those paywalls are still operating as normal. Both Timeses are in the midst of a push to round up new subscribers in the California. (The West Coast Times for obvious reasons, but California is also the largest market for digital subscriptions at the East Coast Times.)

But other California papers like the (formerly San Jose) Mercury News and East Bay Times, both part of the MNG-owned Bay Area News Group, have moved their outage map and information beyond their paywall. The Chico Enterprise-Record, which covered the heart of the Camp Fire last year and is also part of BANG, is doing the same with coverage by a Report for America corps member. A Mercury News article points out:

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The San Francisco Chronicle, owned by Hearst, which was called out in that above tweet for having paywalled map access, now has a “support free map access” button on its map that leads to a donation box via LaterPay, a German startup that began as a semi-micropayments processor.

The local TV stations, of course, offer up free information with many pop-ups; CNN is promoting its text-only site on its running updates page about the outages, though you currently have to scroll past 50 other bullet-pointed links to find the first California story on the lite site, beneath “Lauren Conrad welcomes 2nd child.” Google Maps is sharing information (including a link to the Mercury News’ coverage), and PG&E’s map is still there. Digital outlets like Berkeleyside and student newspapers like the Daily Californian are putting out information on the crisis for free as well. But local legacy newspapers, despite their cuts, are still putting out more local journalism on average than other forms of media. (How to actually do this reporting while caught in the middle of a crisis, as the Chico Enterprise-Record faced during the Camp Fire last year, is another question.)

The communities impacted by these power outages are in a time of need. They need information about their power, their friends and family nearby, their workplaces, and their options. Local and national outlets are providing this information, but at what cost?

Many Americans think local news outlets are doing just fine without their support, a Pew study found earlier this year. Paywalls are not going to go away, but a conversation could and should be started (now, if not already) about the relationship between paywalls and critically important information like the power outage updates. Maybe it’s time, while outlets are providing help to residents in need, to gently remind them that they can use some help, too. Is a stringent paywall worth the added frustration that a consumer gets in a public safety power outage?

Meanwhile, it’s probably a good time to note a print newspaper doesn’t require batteries or a power adapter.

Photo from the Camp Fire aftermath by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Oct. 10, 2019, 2:01 p.m.
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