‘We’ve lifted the paywall on our coverage’ has become a common phrase lately, whether for hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, elections, or health crises like COVID-19.

Why? Because lifting paywalls isn’t just a public service, but may well be good for business too. It’s a chance to get the attention of the huge majority of people who aren’t news subscribers, and give them a taste of what they’re missing.

Only 20% of U.S. households pay to access any online news in the U.S. – compared to the 70%+ of households who used to subscribe to at least one newspaper pre-Internet. Most Americans today get their news from free news sources plus social media.

Paywalls sharply limit the relevance and audience growth of the news brands that erect them. So when they say ‘we’ve lifted our paywall,’ it really means, ‘lets go back to the good old days when we really were a key source of information for the public… and maybe you’ll consider subscribing.’

Occasionally you’ll see a heartfelt articulation of the public service rationale for lifting paywalls, such as this piece describing NYT’s decision to take down its paywall for three days in 2019 to celebrate World Press Freedom day.

Or this one, when the NYT took down it’s paywall in 2017 for Hurricane Harvey. Here’s the key quote: “It was one of a handful of occasions when The Times’s mission of publicizing information came into focus, Mr. Levy said. “We see this as part of our mission,” he said. “We see this as a public service to provide this information to the world at times like this.”

But mostly, the motivations for paywall lifts are a little more opaque. And they can sometimes look like pure marketing, without an obvious public safety threat. Like when the LA Times lifted its paywall for their Oscar’s night coverage, or their recent coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death:

Online subscription business are built on three pillars: subscriber acquisition cost, subscriber engagement (how much they use it), and retention rate (aka churn). All three can be quantified, modeled, and tested.

Paywall lifts are great low-cost acquisition opportunities, because the free content can attract many readers who previously hadn’t considered subscribing. Of course, you may risk losing subscribers if you put too much content outside the paywall for too long. But it’s hard to measure where the marketing benefit stops and the ‘freeloader’ risk begins.

Add the public service and PR benefits into the mix, and the internal debates about when and for how long to lift paywalls must get pretty intense.

Take coronavirus. At first it looked like a short-term public emergency, and most major paywalled publications made their coronavirus coverage free.

But when it became clear that coronavirus might dominate the news for months or even years, the discussion likely shifted to how this free coverage would affect the subscription business.

We’ll never know how this played out, because while news brands usually announce loudly that they’ve lifted their paywall, very few do so when they’ve tightened it back up.

I’d love to see some internal publisher data on this… if you have data you can share on this subject (spreadsheets or models of the business impact of paywall lifts), I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. Some other paywall lifts from the past few years:

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