At the Center, we get questions about pretty much everything that goes on in local journalism, from how to get the school superintendent to stop flagrant violations of FOI laws to how to how fight Craigslist to whether or not you can pull a picture off Facebook and use it. But the issue generating the most queries, to paraphrase Hamlet, is this: to paywall or not to paywall; that is the question. And thus we probably have more Around the Web postings about paywalls than anything else. We try to pass along the commentary on this issue that’ll be the best use of your time, which is why we’re recommending Alan Mutter’s latest blogpost, ” NYT.com latest pay scheme can succeed, but…” Mutter addresses the experiment that has a lot of community journalism’s interest right now — the new paywall at The New York Times. Basically, it’s paywall lite, and it goes into effect March 28. The new plan will allow readers to see 20 articles a month for free. If you want more, you pay. Theoretically, the plan will allow the paper to generate pageviews with the free content while still generating revenue from those who want more Wlll it work? Might this be viable option for community newspapers in the future? Check out Mutter’s discussion of the Times’ version of a paywall — it’s a good overview of the whole issue, plus an interesting take on whether metering might be the next big thing for newspapers.
Free, or paywall, or some creative hybrid? That’s the dilemma all Texas newspapers are looking at. And one of the most frequent requests we get at the Center is for information to help publishers think through their options. And there’s certainly no lack of articles on this topic, and we’ve recommended a number of them. Here’s a good one from one of our favorite blogs, Allen Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur. Mutter starts out with the one undeniable reality — readers don’t like paywalls and they look elsewhere when a newspaper puts one up. Mutter goes on to talk about three different approaches to paywalls now being tried: metered sites, hybrid sites, and one you probably haven’t heard of — dueling sites. It’s a good overview that should help focus your thinking as you discuss the paywall issue in your newsroom.
English King Canute once took his throne to the seashore and commanded the tide not to come in. Of course, his feet got wet. Don’t judge him; newspapers are still erecting paywalls and expecting people to pay their newspaper for what they can get for free. To be fair, there are some specialized situations — niche publications and some community papers that hold a near-monopoly on news — that have experienced some success with paywalls. But if you’re still wrestling with this issue, take time to read blogger Alan Mutter’s latest posting. His thesis is that a growing number of free local news sites are driving another nail in the coffin of paywalls. An example from his blog: “While newspaper executives have agonized for the better part of two years about whether and how to charge for their costly-to-produce content, every indication is that the portals, local broadcasters and other media companies have no intention of asking anyone to pay for access to the increasingly ambitious local sites they are building. With a fast-proliferating number of respectable local sites giving away news to build traffic for their ad-supported ventures, newspapers simply won’t be able to charge for access – especially when their own stories are likely to become freely available within minutes at any number of competing sites.” And as frequently happens with well-thought-out blogs like Mutter’s, some of the comments from readers are as interesting as the blog itself. Here’s an example from one reader: “The only way newspapers can make the transition to online is to radically cut costs. We’re talking 80 to 90 percent cuts in personnel. An online news business needs to be built from the ground up, not have a legacy news module imposed on it. This is why I continue to believe the newspapers original sin wasn’t a failure to charge for content, but a failure to create completely separate online companies.” So add this posting to your consideration as you consider your paywall options.
If you’re trying to get a handle on just what the options are for traditional media companies like yours in a new media world, check out this article. The options briefly outlined by the article are these: (1) Erect a paywall. (2) Put up a semi-permeable paywall (a fraction of articles are free to encourage readers to become paying customers). (3) Implement a metered system, where readers can read a certain number of articles a day and then must pay for further access. (4) Remain free – to try to get more readers and thereby create a site where advertisers will want to appear. (5) Create a better value for advertisers – in effect, turning the newspaper’s advertising department into a miniature advertising agency that offers creative advertising solutions. This article summarizes the various options out there right now, and it will help you think more concretely about what your online future may hold.
Alan Mutter thinks there’s no future in newspapers charging for online content. Still, he offers a summary of the different types of paywalls out there: the Newsday-style wall (which gives readers a few lines of a story and requires a payment for more), the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette model (which requires a subscription to the print product or an online subscription to access some content), New York Times-style metering (a certain number a free views, then a demand to subscribe), iTunes-style micropayments (paying for news stories the way you pay for songs on iTunes, something that has been suggested but not implemented anywhere), and Miami Herald-style tip jars (asking for voluntary online contributions—yeah, like that would work). It’s a nice summary of the various approaches – and be sure to read the comments section of his blog following the piece.
Brian Steffens of the NNA has a blogpost every editor and publisher in Texas needs to read. It’s about what readers really want, and are willing to pay for — and it’s not necessarily just our content.
To whet your appetite, here’s a sample:
“How convenient are our papers for our readers? Is the type large enough for easy reading, or have we shrunk the text size, crammed the letterspacing and reduced the leading/line spacing to get the same amount of news in fewer pages (pages that may now be harder to read, negating the “benefit” of fitting all the news into fewer pages)? How readable are those classifieds or public notices?
“How convenient are our papers for our advertisers? Is the rate card easy to read and understand, or deadly dull full of ratios and formulas and grids that only your sales reps can read and interpret? Is it simple and easy for a reader to place a classified ad, when they think of it, whether it’s during business hours or in the evening after their work shift and they have time to think about selling off something in the garage or basement?
“While we agonize over our content and how to charge for it, let’s not forget a simple marketing maxim: a great way to differentiate your product or service from the next one is to make it easy on the customer. If two providers offer a similar product or service, they’ll pick the one that’s easiest to use.”
The good news is that there has been a lot of research on whether or not people would pay for news online. The bad news is that the polls disagree. One says 53 percent would pay; another says only 20 percent would pay. And how much? Almost $5, according to one poll, only $3, according to another. No matter what price readers say they are willing to pay, the $3 to $5 subscription is a lot less than most publishers want to charge.
Newspaper people like to think they have their fingers on the pulse of readers. They like to think they have an idea of what readers think, what they want, what they believe they need. A new survey shows, however, that news execs far overestimate their readers’ perceived needs for the news they’re producing – in any format. For example, both groups were asked what readers would do if their local newspaper Web site went away. Would they turn to the print product to get news? An overwhelming 75 percent of news execs said if their Web site went away, readers would pick up the print edition. But only 30 percent of readers said they would – 68 percent said they’d go to other Web sites, 45 percent would turn to TV. This is one of those surveys that anyone in news should read.
Alan Mutter explains how just looking at unique visitors or page views for your Web content isn’t enough. It might be enough, he says, to show your advertisers how many views their ads are getting, but it’s not enough if you’re trying to figure out how much money you might make selling your content.
Check out this article in PaidContent. It surveys some newspapers who are charging for online content, including the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen. Here’s a quote: “The newspapers tend to be located in smaller, often rural markets; online-only subscriptions are typically priced at a substantial discount to the print edition (in general, about 75 percent of what the print product costs); where numbers are available, the number of online subscribers is still a tiny percentage of their print counterparts (less than 5 percent); and many of these papers say they began charging not so much to make money online, but rather to protect sales of their print editions.”