Monday, April 9, 2012

Another newspaper puts up a paywall

While nearly every newspaper was giving away stories for free in the late 1990s, one of my former newspapers -- The Herald-Sun of Durham  -- stubbornly refused. The H-S was going against a strong tide and criticized in many circles.

But there was some excellent logic: Why give away your product online while you're still trying to sell the same content in a print edition that brings in money?

The H-S was one of the last holdouts before it finally started making stories available free on its website. Since then, they've probably joined the rest of the newspaper industry regretting it to some degree considering how revenue just kept dropping.

One of my other former newspapers -- the Daily Press of Newport News, Va. -- just joined the growing number of publications that is trying to find some of that lost revenue. On Monday, the Daily Press put up a paywall for much of its content, even blog posts.

In this announcement, publisher Digby Solomon outlines the way it will work:

So not all of the content will be behind the paywall, but the best content will be. It's probably smart to offer a low introductory rate of 99 cents. But there will be some frustrated readers when they try to call up a story and this pops up on their screen:

As a reader, I hate this. But as a former newspaper person who hates the financial problems facing the industry even more, I hope it works.

I remember when news broke that was reporting that Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Harrison Barnes were leaving UNC for the the NBA. I jumped over to the site only to find out that the story was behind a paywall. It was frustrating, but I didn't pull out my credit card and buy a subscription. I already knew the news and I'd probably later learn whatever further insights the story may have included. 

I'm skeptical about whether this is a good decision by the Daily Press, and wonder what the rate will be after the 99-cent charge for the first five weeks.

For young readers who never have had to pay to read newspaper stories, this is probably something they will refuse to accept. Older readers may be more flexible.

I would expect that longtime Peninsula-area residents who have depended on the Daily Press for local news, sports and features will grudgingly pay to see the exclusive content online. What I'm actually hoping is that they'll pay for a print subscription since that will come with free access to exclusive online content.

Will people who live far away from Hampton Roads keep coming to the site to read award-winning sports columnist David Teel, for example, if they have to pay to see his work? I wonder if they will unless the charge remains low. Missing one of the top columnists in the ACC region, along with plenty of other good reporters, will spur much debate with many readers.

Clicks mean money, and sports stories bring a lot of them.

I'm guessing that the Daily Press will lose lots of clicks from people outside of the Hampton Roads area who routinely visit the site for coverage of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Hampton, CNU and the CAA. People who grew up in the area might be inclined to pay the fee to keep up with all of that as well as the high schools coverage.

If you are a Hokies or Cavaliers fan who enjoys Norm Wood's coverage of the football and men's basketball teams at those schools, will you pay for it? You should because he does an excellent job. But some might figure that they'll instead go to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginian-Pilot or other papers in western Virginia where they might be able to get coverage free.

These are the unknowns that newspapers can only guess about when they try something new like this.

Will the increase in revenue be worth the risks?

I hope it works because I fear for the future of newspapers and for the careers of talented friends who still are lucky enough to be working in the industry.

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