COVID-19 news coverage should be accessible to all

Remove paywalls

Collegian+file+photo

Collegian file photo

By McKenna Premus, Assistant Social Media Editor

In a time where society’s normal routine has come to an abrupt standstill and feelings of fear, confusion and uncertainty are flooding the minds of nearly every individual around the world, the media holds an immensely significant responsibility. The weight of every tweet, news segment and article has increased tenfold, holding critical information that helps billions of people find even the slightest sense of stable ground during this very unstable time.

Words cannot describe how important coverage of COVID-19 is. Whether it be at a local level, knowing how many current cases have been reported in one’s county and what local town and state governments are doing to respond, or at a national level, watching President Trump speak at a White House press conference, news coverage of this ongoing pandemic is crucial in keeping the masses informed.

And it ought to be accessible by everyone.

Many news corporations utilize paywalls on their digital news platforms, requiring viewers to subscribe in order to browse the platform at their leisure and access unlimited articles. Historically, news organizations have taken down their paywalls during important incidents, such as midterm elections or severe winter storms. During a grim public health emergency such as this one, all news outlets should remove their paywalls and make information regarding COVID-19 available to the public.

In an interview led by Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s business analysist, Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, called journalism “a critical public service,” especially in “times of crisis [when] information becomes more akin to emergency room care.”

“A swift-moving global pandemic means people need information updates from a local news provider daily, if not hourly, so they can make personal decisions about how to respond, including what to do if they get sick,” said McBride. “If all of your content is behind a paywall…you’re going to have a hard time making the case that your news is vital to well-being.”

Granted, some news organizations already have taken their paywalls down and are prompting viewers to donate small funds or sign up for daily e-mail newsletters to maintain some base public support. Some are allowing readers to view only content pertaining to COVID-19 without a subscription. Others, however, continue to enforce paywalls—even if at a reduced cost.

That being said, I am by no means turning a blind eye to the bitter consequences cutting off one of the last remaining sources of revenue will have on the news industry.

The journalism field is a turbulent one, to say the least. Local reporting is dying off, with communities being considered “lucky” if they still have a print version of a newspaper. Reporters battle accusations of producing “fake news,” with their credibility being consistently questioned and undermined by some leaders of this country as they attempt to pursue the truth and keep the public informed. And now, resulting from the closure of all non-essential businesses and the cancellation of most public events, diminishing advertising revenue is subjecting hundreds of journalists to severe pay reductions and furloughs.

According to a CNN Business article updated on March 22, “at least 100 people have lost their jobs in media over the past two weeks, with most outlets citing coronavirus as the direct cause.” Five days later on March 27, CNN Business reported “that number shot up to at least 300 people as the impact of coronavirus continues to roil newspapers and digital media companies.”

Perhaps this could be viewed as a “lose-lose” situation. On one hand, coronavirus coverage is vital in that this ongoing pandemic is a public health emergency and all people should have equal access to information. On the other hand, there is simply no feasible way in which journalists can afford to survive off of one dollar donations, let alone counteract the sharp decline in advertisement revenue due to the cancellation and temporary closure of all events and non-essential businesses for the near future.

I would argue, however, that there is a solution.

All news organizations should drop their paywalls to allow free accessibility to coverage of COVID-19 to the public. In return, it is imperative that the public offer some form of support to journalists and the news industry, for without such support, coronavirus coverage would cease to exist.

Now, I am not asking for you to subscribe to every news organization known to man. This is a very difficult time for everyone — financially, physically, emotionally, psychologically. I understand that.

I am, however, writing to acknowledge the importance of journalism, especially in times such as this one. Information is crucial. And I take pride in knowing that, as a journalist, it is the responsibility of myself and thousands of other journalists to make information available to the public so that everyone can be fully informed.

Equally vital is your support. Whether it is by purchasing a digital or print subscription to a news organization, or signing up for a daily email newsletter, or just simply taking a moment to appreciate the bravery and dedication of journalists who are currently out in hospitals and at press conferences reporting, interviewing, filming, producing, editing and writing about COVID-19’s current impact on the world, your support is necessary in ensuring the presence of a free and responsible press.

McKenna Premus can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mckenna_premus.