Ombudsman: Should Brunswick News have taken down its paywall following the Moncton shootings?

 By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman 

 By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman 

North American newspaper companies continue to grapple with the question of what digital content model is most likely to ensure their survival into the future. It’s not an easy time to be a newspaper owner and manager. The annual World Press Trends survey released June 9 points out that while newspapers’ combined print and digital audiences continue to grow, digital advertising revenues aren’t keeping pace.

Larry Kilman, Secretary general of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), which released the survey, struck a somber note:

“Unless we crack the revenue issue, and provide sufficient funds so that newspapers can fulfill their societal role, democracy will inevitably be weakened,” he said in a press release, noting the necessity of finding “sustainable business models for digital news media”.

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In search of just such a sustainable model, many North American newspaper publishers have put in place metered paywalls; in Canada this includes Postmedia’s nine English-language dailies, Sun Media’s major urban dailies, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. Metered paywalls allow readers free access to a limited number of stories; once the limit is reached, a paid subscription is required.

The most recent numbers suggest that neither free content nor meters are the silver bullet, at least not yet and arguably not for the foreseeable future. North American newspapers continue to struggle with declining print advertising revenues spurred by fragmenting ad dollars, and digital advertising revenues are nowhere near closing the gap.

Management at Brunswick News was of the view that a full subscription model, rather than a meter, was the right choice for its publications. Since 2011 readers wishing to access any of its newspapers’ digital content must subscribe. As with the print edition, there is a charge for the journalism.

Agree or disagree, this is a well-considered business response to the revenue challenges faced by all newspapers.

Earlier this week, as the shocking story of the tragic shooting deaths of three RCMP officers in Moncton unfolded, some took to social media to chastise Brunswick News for not lifting its paywall. A recent post on J-Source was also critical.

There is precedent in the U.S.:  the Boston Globe lifted its paywall for the Boston Marathon bombing; the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal lifted theirs for Hurricane Sandy. It’s worth noting that none of these publications have a full subscription model like that of Brunswick News.

It’s encouraging to know that critics on social media were interested in viewing content from Brunswick News newsrooms. It’s not so encouraging to know some people didn't want to pay even 99 cents for it.  Possibly I missed it, but I didn’t see anyone demanding the print edition for free. To me this underscores the major, ongoing challenge newspaper companies face with expectations around digital content.

A decision to make paid content free needs to be made by both newsroom and business-side managers. Certainly within the first 24 hours of the Moncton shootings there was some discussion about it at Brunswick News.

Apart from those who simply think digital content has to be free, some raised the issue of public interest, specifically, in the Moncton case, the public safety. This could certainly be a valid reason and it is perfectly reasonable to assume at the outset that such a necessity existed. But editors are paid to pause and think things through. In management’s view, this was not a case of catastrophic necessity; public safety issues were being adequately handled via social media through Brunswick News journalists as well as the RCMP and other media. The RCMP were doing a great job on social media and Brunswick News journalists were consistently retweeting their public safety tweets. New Brunswick is a small place that is well served by print, digital, radio and television media. It was certainly not difficult to get information, whether locally or elsewhere within Canada, whatever one’s choice of delivery. 

Arguably, the most significant contribution to public safety was made by Brunswick News: the only known photo of an armed and camouflage-clad Justin Bourque on the loose was taken by a Moncton Times & Transcript photographer. It was shared by the RCMP and was rapidly disseminated not just locally but around the world. (Indeed, it was taken without permission by some other media, but that is perhaps a story for another day.)

As it turns out, many thousands of New Brunswickers took it in their stride to pay for their paper and their digital news in the usual way. Those who thought it appropriate to get content for free, whatever their rationale, were free to find some elsewhere. The journalists and management at Brunswick News need have no shame that they stood by the notion that their work has value – and it’s significantly more than 99 cents for a month of content. 

My personal view is onside with management’s decision and the views of those on social media and elsewhere who defended it. The technological barrier was significant and there was and remains no evidence that anyone was put at risk or that the public interest was not adequately served. Having said that, I respect that there is room here for disagreement and that others may holding differing views. This is essential to ethical debate.

There may be circumstances in the future that justify taking down the paywall; hypothesizing about that eventuality is unhelpful in my view, because if and when it comes, it is bound to be unexpected.

Meanwhile, Brunswick News management has decided a subscription model is the best way to ensure that the newsrooms can continue to deliver content to their customers into the future. That model may or may not be tweaked as customers make their preferences clear. Ultimately, however, whatever we as journalists or journalism academics think, it is the customers who will decide whether or not Brunswick News has chosen the right business model and made the right choices. 

This column was originally published by Brunswick News and reprinted here with Graham's permission. 

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