Local newsrooms question their paywalls

“What they lose in potential subscription dollars, they’ll make up in underwriting, donations, and sponsorships — community thanks for becoming a part of the solution.”

In 2021, after publishing their coronavirus coverage outside their paywalls for more than a year, legacy local newsrooms will begin to question both the ethics and the efficacy of having paywalls at all.

The conversation will begin in summer 2021. With most Americans vaccinated, the sense of urgency will decline. Because newsrooms missed the opportunity to expand their relationship with coronavirus-driven readers, cancellations will mount. Newsroom leaders will decide to put all their coverage back behind a paywall, because the emergency is over and doing so might slow the subscription decline.

But this time, some reporters and editors will push back. They got closer to their communities during the pandemic and the 2020 election, and they’re reluctant to wall themselves off once again. They’ll point to successful donation drives at the beginning of the pandemic and the record-breaking reach of their non-paywalled service journalism as evidence that there’s another path to sustainability and impact: one not based on producing journalism for a small segment of the local community and requiring payment to access it.

They’ll highlight the hypocrisy of inviting audience participation in their reporting when so little of the community can actually access their journalism and share it with others.

They’ll raise deep community divisions and the rise of misinformation as evidence that an all-encompassing paywall is no longer a responsible choice for a newsroom that wants to be a part of a healthy community. (Many Americans agree. In the 2020 Digital News Report, 24 percent of Americans expressed concern about the lack of quality information available for free.)

And they’ll point to the success of membership at born-digital local news sites like Berkeleyside and the Richland Source — and members’ “I pay to keep news free for everyone” ethos — as evidence that something else can work.

But the journalists will quickly realize that asking for community-wide support requires a different strategy than selling a product to a narrow audience, and that they need to hear from people other than the local power brokers they’re used to interviewing.

So they’ll convene a new set of local representatives, ones who have long been chipping away at community-level change: small business owners, grassroots organizers, social service providers, restaurateurs, movement lawyers, museum directors, religious leaders, artists, neighborhood association members, music venue owners, and parent-teacher association members. The journalists will ask what their newsroom can do to accelerate the change they’re already working toward.

These community members will describe an alternative future for the city and what stands in the way of that better tomorrow: zoning that creates unaffordable housing, convoluted policies that leave public school students behind, and car-centric planning that thwarts casual interactions between locals with different life experiences.

The community members will share that they fight for the city because they love it and share what made them fall in love with it: the farmer’s market with buskers and local produce, the generations of family members who live a few minutes away, the annual summer block party, the vibrant murals they pass on their way to work.

And as the journalists listen, they’ll process something critical: Most local change happens in inches, not miles. It doesn’t begin when someone decides to run for local office. It begins when someone patronizes a local business instead of Amazon, tends the neighborhood garden, attends a community event on a busy weeknight, or offers their building’s spare wall for a community mural.

The journalists will realize that each time a person chooses community over convenience, it’s a tiny act of civic participation — and that they can design their journalism to help more people take those first steps.

They will establish a new goalpost: connecting locals to one another and equipping them to make their cities places where they can thrive.

They will begin to focus on serving the whole civic space. The lines between “hard news” and “soft news” will fade as they use their voter-guide framework to highlight the arts community and model policy events after neighborhood tours. They’ll do journalism that is useful to swathes of the community who previously found their work irrelevant, and they will help locals find things in the community that bring them joy. They will strengthen their local community by connecting residents with each other and causes they care about.

Much of this community-building work and service journalism will happen in person and through other channels that can’t be paywalled. But what they lose in potential subscription dollars, they’ll make up in underwriting, donations, and sponsorships — community thanks for becoming a part of the solution.

Some newsrooms will go the membership route, inviting community members to co-create with them through financial and non-monetary contributions to their journalism. Some will double down on donations, producing impact reports that highlight their success at activating new civic participants. Others will stick with subscriptions but make major changes to their paywall; a state of emergency will no longer be the only reason that their reporting is made available to all. Editors will be guided by additional questions: Does this help people make better decisions about life here? Does this give locals greater agency?

Journalists will finally understand what Jay Rosen meant when he wrote in 1999 that “empty streets are bad for editors,” because as they help to fill the streets, public meeting rooms, art galleries, and parks, their newsrooms will see a level of public enthusiasm and support they’ve never experienced before.

Ariel Zirulnick is fund director at Membership Puzzle Project and managing editor of the Membership Guide.

In 2021, after publishing their coronavirus coverage outside their paywalls for more than a year, legacy local newsrooms will begin to question both the ethics and the efficacy of having paywalls at all.

The conversation will begin in summer 2021. With most Americans vaccinated, the sense of urgency will decline. Because newsrooms missed the opportunity to expand their relationship with coronavirus-driven readers, cancellations will mount. Newsroom leaders will decide to put all their coverage back behind a paywall, because the emergency is over and doing so might slow the subscription decline.

But this time, some reporters and editors will push back. They got closer to their communities during the pandemic and the 2020 election, and they’re reluctant to wall themselves off once again. They’ll point to successful donation drives at the beginning of the pandemic and the record-breaking reach of their non-paywalled service journalism as evidence that there’s another path to sustainability and impact: one not based on producing journalism for a small segment of the local community and requiring payment to access it.

They’ll highlight the hypocrisy of inviting audience participation in their reporting when so little of the community can actually access their journalism and share it with others.

They’ll raise deep community divisions and the rise of misinformation as evidence that an all-encompassing paywall is no longer a responsible choice for a newsroom that wants to be a part of a healthy community. (Many Americans agree. In the 2020 Digital News Report, 24 percent of Americans expressed concern about the lack of quality information available for free.)

And they’ll point to the success of membership at born-digital local news sites like Berkeleyside and the Richland Source — and members’ “I pay to keep news free for everyone” ethos — as evidence that something else can work.

But the journalists will quickly realize that asking for community-wide support requires a different strategy than selling a product to a narrow audience, and that they need to hear from people other than the local power brokers they’re used to interviewing.

So they’ll convene a new set of local representatives, ones who have long been chipping away at community-level change: small business owners, grassroots organizers, social service providers, restaurateurs, movement lawyers, museum directors, religious leaders, artists, neighborhood association members, music venue owners, and parent-teacher association members. The journalists will ask what their newsroom can do to accelerate the change they’re already working toward.

These community members will describe an alternative future for the city and what stands in the way of that better tomorrow: zoning that creates unaffordable housing, convoluted policies that leave public school students behind, and car-centric planning that thwarts casual interactions between locals with different life experiences.

The community members will share that they fight for the city because they love it and share what made them fall in love with it: the farmer’s market with buskers and local produce, the generations of family members who live a few minutes away, the annual summer block party, the vibrant murals they pass on their way to work.

And as the journalists listen, they’ll process something critical: Most local change happens in inches, not miles. It doesn’t begin when someone decides to run for local office. It begins when someone patronizes a local business instead of Amazon, tends the neighborhood garden, attends a community event on a busy weeknight, or offers their building’s spare wall for a community mural.

The journalists will realize that each time a person chooses community over convenience, it’s a tiny act of civic participation — and that they can design their journalism to help more people take those first steps.

They will establish a new goalpost: connecting locals to one another and equipping them to make their cities places where they can thrive.

They will begin to focus on serving the whole civic space. The lines between “hard news” and “soft news” will fade as they use their voter-guide framework to highlight the arts community and model policy events after neighborhood tours. They’ll do journalism that is useful to swathes of the community who previously found their work irrelevant, and they will help locals find things in the community that bring them joy. They will strengthen their local community by connecting residents with each other and causes they care about.

Much of this community-building work and service journalism will happen in person and through other channels that can’t be paywalled. But what they lose in potential subscription dollars, they’ll make up in underwriting, donations, and sponsorships — community thanks for becoming a part of the solution.

Some newsrooms will go the membership route, inviting community members to co-create with them through financial and non-monetary contributions to their journalism. Some will double down on donations, producing impact reports that highlight their success at activating new civic participants. Others will stick with subscriptions but make major changes to their paywall; a state of emergency will no longer be the only reason that their reporting is made available to all. Editors will be guided by additional questions: Does this help people make better decisions about life here? Does this give locals greater agency?

Journalists will finally understand what Jay Rosen meant when he wrote in 1999 that “empty streets are bad for editors,” because as they help to fill the streets, public meeting rooms, art galleries, and parks, their newsrooms will see a level of public enthusiasm and support they’ve never experienced before.

Ariel Zirulnick is fund director at Membership Puzzle Project and managing editor of the Membership Guide.

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