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Hurricane Sandy and the Publishing Industry

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:58 PM

How Hurricane Sandy forced editors to get creative with their content delivery.

By Meredith L. Dias

About a month ago, Hurricane Sandy tore through the northeast and, according to the New York Times, left behind at least $50 billion in economic losses. All segments of the publishing industry -- magazines, newspapers, and books -- faced power outages, office closures, property damage and flooding, and server problems. Newspapers were forced to delay production of their Tuesday print editions, and other publications came to a standstill thanks to compromised content management systems. It was a harsh blow to an industry already in flux.

But Hurricane Sandy forced editors to get creative with their content delivery. During the hurricane and in the days and weeks that followed, magazines and newspapers took their content to alternate cyber-venues, and in some cases the results were game-changing. This month, we're examining some of the measures that publishers took in response to the powerful storm.

"Razing" the Paywall

Perhaps one of the most significant moves came in the days leading up to the hurricane. News sites such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsday temporarily removed their paywalls to allow readers unfettered access to their hurricane coverage. In other words, for a short time, these publications and others forfeited profit in order to serve crucial content to a wider audience -- a move lauded widely by pundits and subscribers alike. In most cases, the websites allowed free access to their metered content until after the storm had ended.

Could this mark the beginning of a new trend? Cnet.com notes in its coverage that this is not the first time that the New York Times has lowered its paywall to allow unrestricted access to content. In the past, it has also shut off the meter in response to such breaking news as Hurricane Irene and the death of Osama bin Laden. It would appear, then, that the Times and other newspapers see more value in reaching a global audience than in paywall-generated profits from vital news stories.

The Role of Tumblr

While some online publications temporarily "razed" their paywalls, others took to social blogging site Tumblr to publish content while they waited for their offices to reopen and their servers to be restored. Last week, an article on Adweek.com discussed Tumblr's role in the magazine industry during Hurricane Sandy. The site not only provided a temporary refuge to these various magazines, but also presented a compelling case for long-term content delivery.

Many magazines already have some sort of Tumblr presence, but the site is enjoying renewed interest from publishers thanks to the success of Gawker Media during and after the storm. The media company, whose hosted sites include Gizmodo, Deadspin, and Gawker itself, was able to accomplish two ends thanks to Tumblr: (1) It was able to post engaging content that was so popular with readers that they begged for more, and (2) It was able to sell advertising on the site to State Farm, the insurance company.

Gawker's Tumblr success has led many in the industry to consider Tumblr as a long-term publishing platform. It is currently free to use and, as evidenced by the State Farm ad buy, represents a possible online revenue stream.

Facebook and Twitter

Many publications took a more "traditional" social media approach and took their content to Facebook and Twitter. The social networking sites provided a platform for up-to-the-minute updates accessible in particular to tablet and smartphone users with access to 3G and 4G networks during the widespread power outages. Readers were able to interact onto only with the magazine content itself, but with one another in response to various news posts.

Facebook and Twitter were important not only to readers with limited connectivity, but also to publishers whose offices were damaged and/or without power. The sites provided a platform for quick, easy updates in the absence of content management systems, design software, and company server access.

The Social Media Lesson

Social networking sites are hardly new territory for magazine publishers, but Hurricane Sandy may just have driven home how vital they are to a publication's online presence. A smartly designed website with lively, engaging content and images is, no doubt, key. But in an emergency, these sites provide a reliable mode of content delivery. As the New York Times and others demonstrated when they took down their paywalls, it is important for publications to reach a wide audience when covering a major news story or natural disaster. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr may be free to use, but they were invaluable to editors and readers alike as they recovered from this devastating storm.

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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