Many news organizations with paid subscriptions are removing barriers to their coronavirus coverage as a public service, and putting that content in front of their meter or paywall. Pairing messaging about the free coverage with a subscription offer is a great way to remind readers the value of journalism while prompting them to support their work with a paid subscription.

But in the meantime, the dramatic decline in advertising revenue has forced many publishers to lay off or furlough staff, cut newspaper print days, or reduce their coverage.

Asking audiences to pay for subscriptions while simultaneously cutting back on the product they are paying for is a tricky business. But many news organizations have found that being upfront and transparent about these challenges serves them well in the long run. Once people understand the financial difficulties their local news outlet is facing, they are often more willing to help.

Here we’ve gathered examples of newsrooms that are doing a good job explaining how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting their business, and asking their audiences to support their journalism through difficult times.

Asking audiences to support journalism’s role as a public service

It’s not easy to ask people for money during a crisis. Many have lost jobs and income. Health and lives are at risk and no business wants to be perceived as exploiting that for profit. So careful and respectful messaging is a must when you ask for support at this time.

In this example from The Star in Toronto, Editor Irene Gentle tells readers that they are providing free access to coronavirus stories that serve the public interest. But she emphasizes that responsible, high-quality journalism can be “staggeringly expensive,” and that the media is in the midst of a financial crisis that will only worsen throughout the pandemic. Her message is a societal and philanthropic appeal — not just to support the publication, but to help other people in the community who need access to information and cannot afford to pay.

We have taken select public-interest coronavirus stories from behind our paywall. It is the right thing to do when the actions of every one of us impacts all of us…But such are the times that doing the right thing now can harm our future viability. The media industry is in a deep financial crisis that has only worsened with the outbreak. Journalism can be staggeringly expensive, and responsible, exclusive, accountability journalism is the most expensive of all…Subscription by some helps ensure vital information can be available to all.

Hyper-local nonprofit news organizations are inherently vulnerable regardless of the economic conditions. They rely on a limited audience from which to solicit donations. The economic fallout, while still in early stages, is arguably unprecedented and the potential impact on these newsrooms could be catastrophic.

In an email sent shortly after Berkeley’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed, Managing Editor Tracey Taylor assures readers of the newsroom’s dedication to continue covering the outbreak in their community. While its content is always free and available to everyone, Taylor’s message reminds readers of the value of Berkeleyside’s reporting and asks for donations to support its ongoing work.

In a time like this, the importance of local reporting can’t be overstated. We know you rely on Berkeleyside for this type of public-service journalism, whether it relates to public health crises, power shutoffs, wildfire or roadway safety, or other pressing issues that affect your and your loved ones’ daily lives. We are glad to be able to provide this critical service, but we can’t do it without your support. Our reporting is made possible by readers like you. Will you support our public-service newsroom by chipping in a tax-deductible contribution to Berkeleyside today?

Encouraging print subscribers to switch to digital

In this email to readers, the publisher of Crain’s Chicago Business explains the impact of the coronavirus on their operations. They lowered their paywall on their daily digital coverage as a public service. He also reminds subscribers that if they are a print subscriber working from home, and presumably most are, they can activate access to the e-edition so their subscription isn’t interrupted. By activating digital access, print subscribers are able to stay engaged even when they are not physically in the office, and since more engaged readers tend to renew at higher rates, this could prevent some from cancelling or letting their subscriptions lapse.

Last week, as a public service, we made the important decision to live our paywall on our daily digital coverage of COVID-19 and will continue to allow free access for the foreseeable future. And we have committed to expanding our communication with you as events play out by providing a free morning email newsletter updating you on the latest news from across Crain Communications and beyond … And if you are a print subscriber working from home and would like to read a print version of Crain’s Chicago business you can activate the electronic version of the print copy here or call our customer service line.

The Day in Connecticut created a video highlighting its digital platforms, including its e-edition. If print delivery is impacted down the road, having as many print subscribers engaged with their content online and through the e-edition would create less of a disruption for those subscribers. This video also underscores that their reporting is not free to produce and asks viewers to support the newsroom by buying a subscription.

The video runs on The Day’s website, on its social platforms, and as a 30-second ad on local cable television. Running on social platforms and on local cable expands the message’s reach and grows local audiences.

Explaining sudden declines in coverage and print frequency as advertising dollars dry up

As ad revenues decline sharply and quickly, publishers are faced with cutting back on their coverage, cutting print days, or redeploying reporters from other beats to cover the coronavirus. In the following examples, news organizations explain candidly why they’re making these changes and how it will impact readers.

Steve Pappas, publisher of the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus writes:

On Friday, I made the decision to temporarily cut back our publishing days. Printing and delivering the newspapers are the most expensive things we do. So starting next week, we will be publishing The Times Argus and Rutland Herald on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We will continue to provide news on the off-days …on our websites as well as on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Also in Vermont, Seven Days staff writer Paul Heintz reports that New England Newspapers could lose $500,000 in ad revenue if the pandemic lasts through May. The company, which comprises the Rutland Herald, Times Argus and Seven Days, also plans to reduce page counts and the use of freelance columnists.

In Montana, Nick Ehli, staff writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, reports that the Chronicle’s parent company, the Adams Publishing Group, implemented a top-to-bottom partial furlough for all of its employees:

I’d like to tell you that you won’t notice any changes, that we will be able to cover our community with the same vigor you’ve hopefully come to expect, but that simply wouldn’t be true. Reporters and photographers working 30 hours a week instead of 40 will produce less content. There is no way around that fact. We’re also discontinuing the columns and articles provided by our correspondents…We will miss their contributions.You’ll also notice that our sports pages will be fewer and that we will discontinue the Ruckus entertainment section after this week.

Asking for donations as for-profit newsrooms

In these deeply uncertain economic times, even some for-profit news organizations have begun to ask for readers for donations. In earlier times, some have had success asking readers to support a specific coverage area, like the Winnipeg Free Press with its religion coverage.

During the pandemic, we’re seeing more and more news organizations asking for donations to help them keep operations up and running.

If your newsroom is considering doing so, remember that clarity and transparency are of the utmost importance. For example, if you are a for-profit organization, make sure to explain to readers that their donations are not tax deductible. It’s also a good time to explain to your audience (if you haven’t already) how your newsroom is funded, and how that impacts your coverage.

Keep the focus on your audiences — while your ask is inherently focused on the needs of your newsroom, remember that you are there solely to serve your audience. Remember that many of your readers may be experiencing the same financial hardships, salary reductions, and layoffs. Focus on their needs and what they are getting from you as much as possible, and build that awareness into your messaging.

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