PR and Paywalls: Why Media Publications Gate Content

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Digital paywalls don’t have the best reputation. For many years, publications have offered their digital content to users free of charge, but this is no longer always the case. The change in accessibility comes with a price: only 16% of readers currently pay for a subscription, with others saying they won’t pay because they can find news elsewhere for free. 

But is the perspective that digital news should be freely accessible realistic? If print coverage in a magazine were secured, wouldn’t the expectation be readers first purchase the issue? 

While there are hard stances on both ends of the spectrum, the truth is paywalls are a normal part of media relations that both PR reps and spokespeople in media coverage should understand and expect. 

Paywalls as a Media Trend 

A media paywall, meaning a barrier to access news without payment, can manifest in various ways. Some publications are entirely locked down without a monthly subscription, while other outlets run a freemium model, offering a set amount of viewable articles before requiring payment. 

Paywalls exist because quality journalism costs both time and money. If your go-to source for news doesn’t have a paywall, there’s a chance it will soon: the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reports 48% of US outlets in 2019 had a paywall, which is ten percentage points higher than in 2017. From this sample, 94% of digital-born outlets still operate on a free model, while regional newspapers adopting subscription models for digital news at higher rates.

Ironically, if you want to learn more about paywalls, you’ll likely have to look behind them. Fortune reported in late 2019 (with a Paywall) how all Condé Nast publications were pivoting their model. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and other natural disasters, caused many media giants to drop their paywalls to provide necessary information to a larger audience, a topic which Adweek reported on (behind a paywall). 

Why Paywalls Make Sense for Media 

The channels from which we receive news have changed. While newspapers, broadcast and magazines were once the pinnacle, digital media has become the standard. This pivot has dramatically affected journalists. Pew Research Center reports newsrooms have shed half of their employees since 2008. This startling statistic proves how sustainability in media is a difficult and complex venture. 

Earlier this year, BLASTmedia spoke with Travis Bernard, Senior Director, Membership at TechCrunch to uncover how the publication incorporated paywalls via Extra Crunch. His perspective is of quality rather than quantity: instead of ramping up advertising, the publication doubled down on a smaller but more engaged audience. The subscription audience includes startup teams, entrepreneurs, founders, investors and others who want Extra Crunch’s content.  Whereas is focused on metrics like unique users and engagement, Extra Crunch offers the publisher new insights around, “layer of conversions, conversion rates, reads by subscribers, and engagement time for subscribers.” 

How Brands Benefit from Gated Coverage 

Media coverage secured on a publication with a paywall is just as important as coverage secured on one without. There are many reasons why media coverage is important, from boosting thought leadership to increasing a website’s Domain Authority, and paywalls don’t negate these. 

Subscribers to gated publications have shown they are committed to the outlet to the point of opening their wallets. Simultaneously, editors with a strong subscriber base can dedicate more time and resources to quality journalism and content. In turn, this means brands that secured coverage on these outlets know they are part of a higher-quality opportunity. 

While paywalls are changing the media landscape, it’s not the end of media relations or opportunities for quality coverage. Now is the time for PR pros to foster stronger relationships with editors to meet the higher expectations available for quality journalism. For guidance on amplifying media opportunities (both gated and not), check out our ebook: Maximizing your media coverage.