Do media outlets have a civic duty to relay information in a public emergency and lower their paywalls? Or should readers always pay for journalism? In this case, Kyle Brown says Brunswick News hurt its reputation by not lowering its paywall.
By Kyle Brown
During the hunt for a gunman last week in Moncton, N.B., many of the usual questions regarding the role of the media in spot news and tragedy re-emerged. Should media publish the shooter’s name? Were citizens unwittingly abetting the gunman by posting photos on social media? Does 24/7 coverage spur copycats in search of anti-hero infamy?
For the citizens of Moncton, where schools didn't open, postal service was cancelled and tactical police officers navigated the streets of a typically quiet neighbourhood, the questions were less philosophical: what were they supposed to do (or not do) to stay safe? What was the latest update from the police?
Of course, the major Canadian networks were broadcasting nationally from the streets of Moncton. International outlets such as CNN and the BBC also jumped on the story and began providing coverage. But those broadcasts weren't designed for the local population—they were meant to update Canadians who flicked over from game one of the Stanley Cup finals or provide a brief international story.
So the question remained: who was informing the residents of Moncton about what was happening?
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Moncton, a city of about 70,000 people, isn't a major media hub. CTV operates a local office there and Rogers runs a news-talk radio station, as do CBC and Radio-Canada. But for many, the main source of news is the Times & Transcript, the largest daily newspaper by circulation in the province.
As citizens scrambled to access the paper's website—as well as those of the Telegraph Journal and the Daily Gleaner, both also owned by Brunswick News—looking for live updates or breaking information, those without an online subscription hit a paywall. And they weren't happy.
— Thomas Raffy (@ThomasRaffy) June 5, 2014
— Sarah Vannier (@sarahvannier) June 5, 2014
— Melissa Wah (@Melissa_Wah) June 5, 2014
The fact that Halifax's Chronicle-Herald, which has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the Atlantic provinces, chose to lower its paywall in light of the crisis earned the paper praise.
For their part, lowering the paywall appeared to be out of the hands of the editorial staff of the Brunswick News papers, according to Adam Bowie of the Daily Gleaner.
Dear people of Twitter. I get that you hate the paywall. But another company manages it. Nobody in our newsrooms could remove it easily. — Adam Bowie (@AdamJBowie) June 5, 2014
Meanwhile, The Globe and Mail's former media reporter Steve Ladurantaye, now at Twitter Canada, pointed out that the cost to get behind the paywall was less than a loonie.
You can get behind the Telegraph Journal paywall for $.99. That's less than today's paper on the newsstand. — Steve Ladurantaye (@sladurantaye) June 5, 2014
Days later, the debate over how Brunswick News’ newspapers used their paywalls looks set to rage on. The situation also raises problematic questions about the civic responsibility of newspapers, not to mention the question of why newsroom staff wouldn't have some control over the functionality of their own website.
While the RCMP did a tremendous job of relaying information to citizens through its social media channels, not everyone is engaged on social media. A 2014 report by Ipsos Reid revealed that only 18 per cent of Canadians aged 35-54 had Twitter accounts, and that number dropped to 10 per cent for those 55+. So while social media can be a great tool for reaching large numbers of people quickly, it's impossible to segment a target audience—residents of Moncton, for example—for sharing pertinent information. Meanwhile, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, more than 67 per cent of Canadian Internet users aged 45 to 64 read or watch the news online, and more than 56 per cent of Internet users aged 65+ did the same.
Obviously, the debate over paywalls is not new, but the idea of lowering paywalls is relatively new, especially in Canada. One of the first instances of papers dropping their paywalls was in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy blew into the American northeast. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal dropped their paywalls ahead of the storm to offer free storm coverage to readers. Following the Boston Marathon bombings last spring, the Boston Globe did the same to provide free, breaking coverage on the investigation and subsequent manhunt.
@sladurantaye There’s precedent from the WSJ and NY Times to temp. remove paywall in case of public emergency. Also opp to showcase yr value
— Craig Silverman (@CraigSilverman) June 5, 2014
In short, it isn’t unprecedented. And if Bowie is correct that editorial staff could not control the paywall internally, that represents a flaw that could seriously hurt the reputation of the Brunswick News family of papers.
Brunswick News ombudswoman Patricia Graham told J-Source she intends to write a blog post (which will also appear behind the paywall and is now posted on J-Source) addressing the issue in the next couple of days.
From a business perspective, losing the trust of your readership by not providing this crucial information, especially when an already successful competitor like the Chronicle-Herald is providing the same information for free, could encourage readers to shift their subscriptions. From a community journalism standpoint, it's in bad faith to force local residents to find a source from outside the community in order to access important information about something as important as an ongoing lockdown and manhunt.
Newspapers, like all news media, have a responsibility to perform a civic duty and inform citizens on matters of community safety. This is particularly true in times of extreme danger, especially in a small community like Moncton, where media diversity is limited.
In the end, let it serve as a lesson for other community newspapers in how to respond in times of community crisis.
Kyle Brown is a freelance writer and blogger who writes about the intersection of news, media and social media in the digital age. He holds a M.A. in Communication and New Media from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that CBC and Radio-Canada operate in Moncton. It’s also been updated to include tweets from Moncton residents who complained about Brunswick News’ paywalls.
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