The near-simultaneous rush among publishers with subscription businesses to loosen their paywalls and provide free access to reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic has reignited long–standing debates about whether the news should fundamentally be free, even as ad-supported journalism (with some exceptions) becomes an increasingly difficult proposition.
This week, rather than erecting a paywall, Vox says it’s looking to make up for declines in its advertising business by soliciting contributions from those readers who can afford it, in order to preserve free access to its journalism for those who can’t.
“Our dedicated team of journalists has boundless ambitions—and feels a great sense of responsibility—to bring you more of our distinctive coverage, in new and different ways, and to continue doing so for free,” wrote editor-in-chief Lauren Williams and executive editor Allison Rockey in a note to readers Wednesday afternoon. “But even with record audience growth, the media business is not immune to the effects of economic downturns. In fact, right now, when audiences need quality, accessible journalism the most, ad revenue is on the decline as companies move to save money and shrink their marketing budgets.”
While not a tax-deductible charitable donation, Vox says recurring or one-off contributions, ranging from $7 to $250, will help support its science explainers, its coverage of the challenges being faced by the U.S. health care system and its YouTube and Facebook videos aimed at breaking down complex topics for younger audiences, among other initiatives.
We wanted to learn a little bit more, so we reached out to Williams with some follow-ups.
Folio: Why was soliciting direct support from readers the right choice for Vox, as opposed to expanding your paid membership program or implementing some form of a metered paywall?
Williams: We had been hearing from audience members who deeply value our coverage that they wished there was a way to support Vox even though we don’t have a paywall or a subscription model. An audience contribution program is the best way to offer those who think what Vox is doing is important the ability to support the work while keeping the essential stories they’re covering accessible to all. For the past year, we’ve experimented with other options for audience support and memberships, including The Highlight on Apple News+ and the Vox Video Lab on YouTube. This is our first wide audience contribution program.
Folio: You mentioned that Vox’s team of journalists feels “a great sense of responsibility” to provide its distinctive coverage to readers for free. Why should journalists feel responsible to give their content away for free, particularly at a time when other sources of revenue like advertising are on the decline?
Williams: This is a fair question, and we certainly understand and respect other models, including the metered paywall that our colleagues at New York magazine have implemented to success (though they are exempting essential coronavirus news and updates from the paywall). Right now, information has the power to potentially save lives, so we are focused on attracting the widest possible audience.
Folio: Is this a permanent addition, or is the idea to stop accepting donations when/if the advertising market recovers?
Williams: We’ll of course evaluate based on audience response and the overall climate for the media industry, but we have ambitious projects ahead that we are eager to tackle for our audiences when we come out the other side of this crisis.
Folio: Are you exploring any additional alternative revenue sources beyond advertising?
Williams: Beyond advertising, Vox’s revenue mix includes grants, subscriptions/memberships (as with the Apple News and YouTube partnerships mentioned above), licensing/syndication and original content.