Even in a Pandemic, the Boston Globe’s Paywall Is Staying Up

The coronavirus outbreak is a rapidly unfolding disaster where good information is vital. Should a company with two free news sites, a free newsletter, and a free page of "Coronavirus Resources" give up the store?

Photo illustration by Spencer Buell

At a time when the health of millions is literally in everyone’s hands right now (sorry), accurate and thorough information about what the new coronavirus is, how it spreads, how it’s being addressed, and what sacrifices each of us need to make for the foreseeable future to keep it contained, is extremely valuable. Vital, even. But if you and your neighbors want to get the best and most up-to-date information possible from Boston’s largest and best-resourced newsroom, you’ll have to pay for it. That’s because even as newspapers around the country have made their outbreak coverage free to the public by lifting the paywall that restricts content to paying customers only, the Boston Globe has not.

Want to know what it’s like inside the state’s first drive-up testing facility, where hundreds if not thousands of people with symptoms may end up passing through soon? It’s paywalled. Want a report on how it’s actually safe for COVID patients to use Ibuprofen? Also paywalled.

For what it’s worth, subscriptions are about as close to free as you could ask for right now. They’ve been made available for the bargain-basement price of $1 for six months, the lowest price the Globe has ever offered. Still, a lot of people are pinching every single penny right now, and may not be willing to sign up for a subscription now that they’ll have to remember to cancel come September, if the price goes up.

The paywalled coverage changed somewhat on Wednesday, when the Globe launched a non-paywalled page filled with “Coronavirus Resources,” sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The move came after heaps of criticism online, including a campaign from the nonprofit group Free Press aimed at both it and the Los Angeles Times, which urged both papers to drop the paywalls “immediately.” “While we understand the need for quality journalism to be financially supported,” Free Press wrote on its website, “we believe this moment calls for media to perform their public service of keeping all people, regardless of whether they can pay for it, informed.” The group is also encouraging supporters to write to the Globe directly.

A quick glance through the new “Resources” page, which is displayed prominently in the top right corner of the Globe‘s homepage, shows it’s hardly a substitute for a subscription. The posts featured on the page are in fact helpful, with a story from the beginning of the month about how senior living facilities prepared for the outbreak, and step-by-step instructions on how to properly wash your hands. But it doesn’t include any of the most recent news, including the latest count on confirmed cases in the state, or today’s widely read opinion piece from two health experts urging people to ignore earlier guidance against wearing masks and do the opposite. And some of it is clearly out of date, including a prominently placed link to a March 5 article about sanitization efforts on the MBTA, which was published long before the T was largely abandoned, T service was reduced dramatically, and nurses had called for a ban on use of the T except for essential employees. What’s more, the story alerts readers midway through that “in Massachusetts, there has been one confirmed case of coronavirus, from a Boston resident, and one presumptive case.” At the latest count, 328 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the state, and 61 in Boston.

In fairness to the Globe, it’s not like it’s the only game in town. Boston’s numerous TV news outlets, radio stations, and online news sites are not paywalled, and we’ve all been covering this outbreak day and night since it began. Plus, the Globe is already offering tons of free coronavirus coverage from its affiliated website Boston.com. And Stat, the highly regarded and constantly updated health news outlet it founded in 2015, has made all of its public health coverage free. Its newsletter focused on the crisis, Coronavirus Now, is also free. Boston.com is even hosting a tool that it says is designed to connect people who need and are offering help, called Boston Helps. “Our journalists at the Boston Globe, Boston.com, and Stat News have been working 24/7 with staff across our organization to provide reliable and helpful information to readers as news on the coronavirus pandemic rapidly unfolds,” Boston Globe Media wrote in a statement to Boston, adding that it “is proud to provide up-to-date information and perspective to local, regional, and global audiences and we are grateful to subscribers for supporting our journalism.”

So many media observers are inclined to let them off the hook. “I have to tell you, I’m not outraged by the idea of a newspaper putting its coverage behind a paywall, because there are so many sources of good, high quality news about the coronavirus,” says Dan Kennedy, media commentator and Northeastern journalism professor. He understands why that might not sit well with people who see journalism as a public service, but points out that demands to make coverage free are a relatively new phenomenon. “If you go back to the pre-internet days, you still had to put a quarter in the news box if you wanted copy of the paper, no matter what the crisis was,” he says.

Also in fairness to the Globe (and all the talented people who work there, whom we’d all like to see remain employed), dropping the paywall even just for coronavirus stories would undercut their entire digital subscription business model, the success of which has made it the envy of newsrooms around the country. At least for the time being, all news is coronavirus news, and that may be the case for a very long time. If the Globe made nearly all of its coverage free indefinitely, would subscribers flee en masse? And if they did, what happens to the Globe? “The Globe is by anybody’s estimation the leading regional newspaper in having built digital subscriptions. This is the work of 10 years at least,” says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. “If that’s the very heart of your revenue and survival strategy, it’s easy for you and me to say ‘Take [the paywall] down and serve the community.’ But it’s a true ethical dilemma. Do you do what you need for your business? Or do you to some extent put that aside?”

Other news outlets have gone the other direction. The New York Times and Washington Post have found reason to dismantle their paywalls on coronavirus coverage. Locally, the Boston Herald dropped its paywall on the crisis, and the State House News Service—a wire service whose rigorous coverage of state politics is used in countless newspapers in the region—has been publishing a free-to-all Coronavirus Tracker, which is updated each morning.

The Globe does have some history of following suit when the moment called for it. It dropped its paywall after the marathon bombings in 2013, and during the manhunt that followed, at a time when people were panicked and demanded as much information about those fraught and anxious days. Now, we’re arguably all just as freaked out as we were back then—but what happens if the crisis goes on for months instead of days?