March 24, 2020

Ungating Critical Content: Taking a Lesson From The Guardian & Skift

There’s a debate taking place online about whether or not media companies that rely on paywalls should open up content that is related to the public health crisis taking place.

In this tweet (which has since been deleted), the debate is summed up pretty nicely:

On one hand, I understand where Yashar is coming from. This is an unprecedented public health crisis. We’re going to come out of this pandemic with people trusting media more. With that said, it’s important for people to have sources they can rely on.

On the other hand, content isn’t free to produce; especially when you’re talking about health news. It’s even more important to ensure fact checking is done correctly. Giving all of that content away for free hurts.

It’s a real conundrum. For some publishers, it’s really working out wonderfully for them too. According to a report by The New York Times:

The number of minutes spent by readers at news sites increased 46 percent from the same period ending a few days ago last year, and overall visits rose 57 percent, according to a study of more than a dozen general news websites by comScore, a media measurement company.

Outlets showing big gains included The Atlantic, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Wired, all of which doubled or nearly doubled the number of visits. Most outlets have made coronavirus-related articles available free to nonsubscribers.

Now you have an even larger audience than publishers are used to getting. At the same time, we are seeing a reduction in advertising, which I discussed last week. According to a report by Digiday, advertisers are starting to pull budgets. They reported:

Media companies and ad sales executives deal with last-minute client demands all the time. But in the past couple weeks, publishers’ sales leaders are being buffeted by challenges on all sides: Paused or canceled campaigns, last-minute panics about whether creative assets suddenly seem inappropriate or tone-deaf, branded content productions shut down because large groups of people are no longer allowed to congregate.

And though RFPs continue to trickle in for the second and third quarters, they are for smaller amounts than publishers are used to, sources at two different media companies said. And with regulations, markets and supply chains still in flux, client budgets could be slashed at any time, making it difficult to project long-term financial health.

It’s a pretty frustrating situation to deal with. We’ve got this highly engaged audience—which sites across the board are experiencing—but advertising budgets are starting to get slashed.

And that’s not even the worst of it…

For those brands that are still advertising, they are increasingly adding coronavirus to the keyword blacklist. This means that if the story contains the keyword, an ad won’t get delivered. It’s meant to be brand safe (where companies don’t want their ads appearing next to negative topics), but it’s having a serious impact on revenue. According to a story by Digiday:

An analysis of U.K. premium news sites by Adyoulike, a native advertising supply-side platform, found there had been a 20% decline in homepage targeting in the first 15 days of March — as coronavirus coverage began to significantly step up — versus the first 15 days of February this year. The analysis looked at around 500 million available homepage ad impressions.

In that period, there was a 40% decline in homepage targeting in ads transacted on the open market, a 20% drop off in homepage targeting in private-marketplace deals, and 10% fewer requests for homepage targeting on direct campaigns.

This gets summed up pretty simply:

We want publishers to open up their coronavirus content… Which happens to be getting the majority of the traffic to websites… Which are seeing clients begin to cut their ad budgets… Or at the very least, blocking their ads from appearing on the same content that is getting the most traffic.

It’s rough and I worry for publishers that are stuck in that hamster wheel.

As my headline says, though, I think publishers should be looking at what The Guardian and, recently, Skift have started to do as inspiration to break out of the wheel.

For years now, The Guardian has bucked the trend for all other major media brands and has not introduced a paywall. It fundamentally believed that its journalism should be left open, but also recognized that it needed to generate revenue from it. So, The Guardian asked its audience to pay for open content.

At the bottom of all pages, there is this bright yellow banner that explicitly asks users for support.


If that’s too small, here’s the copy:

We chose a different approach. Will you support it? Unlike many news organisations, we made a choice to keep our journalism open for all. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable – it is essential in protecting our editorial independence. Support the Guardian today from as little as $1.

It has an even larger call to action at the end of articles that says more about how important it is to have good information and for journalism to be open for all. How well has it done for The Guardian? According to a story by Digiday, rather well.

That plan has now born fruit. On May 1, the publisher reported April 2018 to April 2019 revenue of £223 million ($292 million) and an £800,000 ($1.47 million) operating profit — its first in two decades. In 2016, the publisher had 12,000 paying members, today it has 655,000 and counting. Of those, 360,000 are recurring paying members and 290,000 pay-for-print papers and digital memberships, according to the publisher.

Other publishers are starting to take notice of this approach and realizing that it helps solve the quagmire that they’re in—the desire and need to share their work with their respective industries while also finding a way to generate revenue in an era where other sources have disappeared.

In a post announcing the initiative, Ali wrote:

As a small business that employees about 60 full-time employees — and until last week many freelancers around the world — our business is hit because travel is hit, and because our partners across the industry are hit. Our events business, which is 40 percent of our revenues, is as impacted as is anyone else’s in the events world.

No governments are coming to bail out small businesses, or if they come, they would come too late. So as a fiercely independent company, we are making and will continue to make our own way in this turbulent world.

That’s why I’m asking Skift readers to consider supporting us with a one-time or recurring contribution. You can do that here.

This approach of explicitly ask readers for support is supported by research. According to the Shorenstein Center’s Digital Pay-Meter Playbook:

Our findings suggest digital news consumers will indeed pay for access to high-quality content, particularly when they are presented with compelling, relevant information and marketing messages that inspire deep and ongoing engagement. Publishers succeeding in growing digital subscriptions are outperforming the median by a factor of 10.

I emphasized the bolded part because it’s an important point that’s critical for anyone working on this sort of messaging. Too often, marketers spend time discussing the features that you’re going to get. In the case of media, that’s great journalism, breaking alerts, in-depth research, etc.

However, this isn’t the right approach. Features don’t inspire and they’re certainly not engaging. Benefits, on the other hand, are inspiring and engaging. They’re more emotional.

The simplest way to understand whether you’re writing a feature or a benefit is to ask whether the “what’s in it for me” question is properly answered.

Let me show you an example…


It’s been a long time since Apple introduced the iPod, but think about the marketing language they went with. Telling you that you’ll have 1,000 songs in your pocket is a benefit because it answers what the product does for the person. Every other MP3 player was talking about how much space their devices had. Apple talked about how it affected the user. Was the iPod better? It doesn’t matter. People felt attached to the message.

Normally, I don’t believe in following the latest interest in media, but it’s not every day we’re left dealing with a situation like we are today. Think about it… Media overall, but especially B2B media, relies heavily on advertising and events for revenue. Advertising budgets are likely getting cut and events are cancelled indefinitely.

Nevertheless, publishers continue to report on how this pandemic is having an effect on all industries. I’ve heard from many of them that they are preparing for the worst, tightening their belts, and seeing where things go.

I think now is the time to ask for readers to support your publications. In the case of Skift, they had months to prepare technology because it was preparing to introduce a paywall. However, there are providers out there that can help companies start collecting one-time and recurring donations.

One provider that I haven’t had the opportunity to test, but theoretically makes sense to me, is Pico. It’s a low-cost operation—charging only 2% of the donation on top of Stripe’s credit card processing fee—and it seems to be pretty fast to deploy.

These are trying times, but if we come out of this with people trusting media more, it’ll be because of all these wonderful publications doing their job day-after-day. One way to ensure you’ve got the resources you need is to explicitly ask your readers for support. Sometimes asking is all it takes.