Tackling the paywall debate for community newspapers

Someone asked last week for a summary of online articles about the pros and cons of paywalls.  Nothing is more relevant right now in Texas community journalism:  Are our newspapers going to charge for access to their websites, or should they remain free in hopes that they will generate additional advertising revenue?  There is no easy answer to this. 

We know that the ethos of the Internet is that information should be free.  And since Al Gore invented the Internet, that’s been the prevailing practice.  Some news sites have implemented paywalls.  Others have gone from free to paid and back to free.  And there are many options in between those polar opposites.

The paywall concept seems to be working in a few places, and especially among some of what we call “niche” sites – websites that offer specialized information for limited audiences.  Even such a well-known paid site as The Wall Street Journal can be considered a niche site because of its focus on specialized business coverage.

You’ve heard publishers claim that the best way to establish value is to put a price on the information.  The price we impose on the online product becomes the value of that product, they say.  But in a supply-and-demand economy, the seller does not establish value; the buyer does.  Let’s say you want to sell your old Yugo, and you want it to be seen as a sought-after and valued purchase.  So you price it at $50,000.

Good luck.  If there’s such a thing as a Yugo collector, you may well get it.  But if someone is just looking for a car, there are too many options out there.

So if we expect consumers to pay for the online product, we have to offer something the consumer perceives as value (as opposed to something we think is valuable) and something that the consumer cannot obtain elsewhere. (In the paywall literature, that’s typically called “premium content.”)

And remember that “elsewhere” may not just be another newspaper or a news medium – it can be other online sites, blogs, and especially social networking.  The most recent Pew study reported that 35 percent of respondents had a favorite news Web site, but of that number only 5 percent said they would be willing to pay if their “favorite site” erected a paywall. 

Sounds like a blanket condemnation of paywalls, but that’s not what I intended.  Instead, the point is just that the whole paywall issue is more complex than it seems.

So as you consider this issue, and your own decision about whether or not to put up a paywall, here are some considerations.  The following five articles are examinations (all written in readable style) of the paywall issue.  There give options and they bring up perspectives you need to consider.

Whatever you do, do this first — make a pot of coffee and lock yourself in your office and read through these articles.  You may still choose the paywall route, but you can say you’ve looked at some of the important options.  Here they are:


TCCJ director recognized for service to community journalism

Tommy Thomason was given the Dewane Kelly Friend of the Newspaper Award Saturday by the West Texas Press Association.

Online news

A quick-and-easy guide to Internet terms

So you heard someone talking about Ruby on Rails and it sounded like a Merle Haggard ballad — and then you found out it was a Net platform? And you’ve always wanted a plain-English explanation of SEO, CSS and cloud computing? You’re in luck. Poynter has posted a glossary of Internet terms that every digital journalist should know. And even if you don’t “need” to know, imagine how impressed everyone in your office will be when you throw terms like metadata and data visualization into the conversation.


Tale of dueling editors is a reminder of the early days of Texas community journalism

We do love to moan about the pressures of the news business.

Come to one of our workshops, or maybe to a TPA meeting, and you’ll hear lots of talk about the problems of life in a newsroom.

Most of them deal with stress and time and money.  And listen long enough, and you’ll hear some whines about the good old days when life was simpler.

Yeah, sure.  Kerry Craig, assistant editor of the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram, sent the Center an email this week that’s a reminder that the good old days of journalism weren’t exactly stress-free either.

Fact is, they could be downright dangerous.

Kerry sent along a news article from 1891, found by a researcher working on a book and passed on to him.

The article, from the St. Louis Republic, was headlined “FOUGHT A DUEL TO DEATH.”  The deck: “Two Texas Editors Shoot at Short Range with Fatal Result.” Here’s the article:

         Sulphur Springs, Tex., Sept. 16 – This quiet little city was thrown into great excitement over an impromptu duel about 9:30 o’clock this morning between E.M. Tate and Everett Moore, respective editors of the Hopkins County Echo and the Alliance Vindicator, which resulted in the death of the latter.  Tate received a slight wound in the left arm.  Moore received five wounds, one in the groin, two in the side and two in the leg, and lived but a few hours.  The pistols used were large and deadly weapons.  There has been ill-feeling between the two men for some time, and they have been attacking each other very severely in their papers.  This morning at the hour mentioned they met on the public square and at first engaged in a fist fight.  Moore finding Tate to be the better man, backed off from him and drew his gun, but Tate was equal to the occasion and drew his gun by the time Moore could fire.  Both men continued firing until their weapons were emptied, Moore shooting after he had fallen to the ground.  Eye-witnesses to the affair are unable to say which was the first to shoot.  Tate says Moore fired first and that he acted purely in self-defence.  Tate surrendered himself to the Sheriff, and is now undergoing a preliminary trial.

The Vindicator isn’t around anymore, but the Echo lives on today as a weekly publication of Kerry’s Sulphur Springs News-Telegram.

Dueling editors weren’t exactly unique to Texas.  The history of American journalism is full of editors (especially in the South and West) for whom the term “newspaper war” was a literal conflict.

The arguments in print frequently erupted in fisticuffs on the street, and duels like this one were not uncommon.

One San Francisco editor even put this sign on his door:  “Subscriptions received from 9 to 4; challenges from 11 to 12 only.”



Conquering the semicolon

If you have reporters (or maybe even yourself, but I’ll never tell) who have trouble knowing when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon, check out this hilarious explanation. It’s well-illustrated and it answers questions some folk have had since eighth grade. Of course, in journalism we don’t use that many semicolons — periods and new sentences often work better. But check this out anyway; you’ll enjoy it; I promise. (Three in one sentence; are you impressed?)


New program will give you a writing coach for a day

Writing is a skill, and improving writing is like improving any other skill.

Do you suck at dancing?  Nobody would suggest that you buy a book on dancing, or view videos on dancing, or do a Web search on dancing.  Now those things might help a little – they certainly couldn’t hurt — but if you want to become a better dancer you need to spend some time with someone who is a good dancer.  You need to watch that person dance, and get some one-on-one instruction, and then you need to let that person make some suggestions on your dance moves.

That’s the way you learn to dance, or to swim, or to cook or to drive.

And it’s the way you learn to write, too.

Books and workshops and webinars are good, but there’s no substitute for sitting down with a writing coach to talk writing.  Not writing in the abstract, but the city council story you just wrote.

The Center wants to help, so we’re launching a new contest:  Win a Writing Coach for a Day.

The coach is Paul LaRocque, a veteran of more than four decades in writing, reporting, editing and teaching.  He has worked at both community papers and metros, and he has written books on the editing process.  He has spoken at our workshops, and perhaps most importantly, he’s a really nice guy.  The kind of guy you’d like to share a cup of coffee with and talk shop.

The contest is simple.  You just give us a little information about your paper (your paper’s name and address, circulation, and editor or publisher) and tell us why you think you need a writing coach in no more than 500 words.
Your explanation should answer these questions:  Why does your newspaper need a writing coach?  What are the problems/issues you would like for your coach to address?  In what ways would you like to use your coach during his day in your newsroom?

Send that info to us at [email protected].  The winner will be announced on Monday, Aug. 2.

If you win, your writing coach will contact you to set up a time to visit your newsroom.  And you’re not out a cent — except for that cup of coffee.  We’ll expect you to cover that.