February 12, 2010
/ by Katrina M Mendolera
Community papers battle media woes with pay-models
Some analysts and news reports have attributed 2010 to be the “year of the paywall,” when “newspapers will try to persuade online readers to pay” as The Economist recently put it. But while the viability of paywalls among daily metros still remains to be seen, many community papers have been utilizing the pay-model with relative success.
In Texas, the Rockdale Reporter doubled its electronic subscribers to 150 from 75 since it went behind a paywall in May. “I expect that number will continue to grow. It is easy for those who don’t want to wait on the postal service,” said Ken Esten Cooke, publisher of the Rockdale Reporter, in an e-mail interview. But success reaches farther than Texas, as there are similar tales of working paywalls at community papers across the country. For instance, since the Washington-based Stanwood/Camano News re-established a paywall on their news site, the paper has added 300 subscribers to their online version.
For Rick Doyle, editor of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, the reason for going behind a paywall last month was simple: it was financially a good move. “It takes money to collect and distribute news and information,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Online ad sales are not sufficient to recoup the costs involved. You have to demonstrate that there is value in what you have to offer.” Although the site offers summary versions of its articles, readers have to subscribe to get the benefit of the whole story for much of its content. Despite its short life, Doyle said that it has “exceeded our expectation. Within one month, we are almost three-quarters of the way to our goal for subscriptions for the entire year.”
Like many papers initially experimenting with an online pay-model, the Colorado-based Johnstown Breeze had to deal with some readers who didn’t like having to suddenly pay for something that was once free. But those who complained were the minority, said executive editor Matt Lubich. “We tried to explain to them that it costs money to generate Web content just like content for the print product,” he said. Although the paper did see a drop in Web traffic, he noted that they have a regular influx of subscribers who may have canceled their print subscription and re-subscribed on the Web, others who let their print subscription lapse and re-subscribed to the Web, or those who access the site for 24 hours. “Bottom line is that any traffic we now generate is generating revenue as opposed to before when it was being given away for free. In these tight newspaper times, every little bit helps,” he said.
Back in the world of big city metros, the New York Times is giving itself a year before taking the plunge. If Newsday is an example, the forecast doesn’t look good as it lost approximately 1,000 unique visitors when it went behind a paywall in October. The disconnect between metros and community papers appears to lay with localism. “It looks like community newspapers may have more success with a paywall because many of them are the only game in town,” said David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group. “In other words, people on Long Island could get their news from other forms of New York media and Web sites. However, the small community newspaper in West Texas has a captive audience that has no other choice but to pay to get behind a paywall to learn about local news. The less competition, the more likely a paywall will be accepted and work.”
Rob Blethen, publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and member of the family that owns the Seattle Times tends to agree. “We’re very isolated, have very strong print penetration (54 percent on Sunday), are an older market, are a very community oriented market and have very limited competition,” he said in an e-mail interview. “In Walla Walla, if you want to know about what’s going on the Union-Bulletin is basically the only place to get it.”
The problem with news covered by large city newspapers is that it can always be found somewhere else for free. When the New York Times put several of its popular columnists behind a paywall, they found that there wasn’t much interest in paying for them, noted Coates. “This is nice reading when you are getting it for free but an overpriced luxury when you have to pay for it,” he said. “In the case of Newsday, it put Long Island news content and popular sports behinds its paywall and saw only 35 people willing to pay an extra $5.00 a week to view it. Why? Quite possibly the readers found their local news in community newspapers and their sports on TV Web sites.”
While there is a general consensus that times are tough for all newspapers right now, there is also agreement that community papers are more likely than larger metro papers to find success behind a paywall. “I think community papers, again, have the ‘local’ angle in that often they (as we are) are the only real source for the news about that area. From that standpoint, I think they are most likely to benefit from a change like this,” said Lubich.
Regardless of newspaper size, Coates said he believes that newspapers need to continue to research their given markets in order to find a viable model. Blethen expressed a similar sentiment: “It is a healthy experiment for the newspaper business that likely won’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. I think it’s very important that many newspapers try many different things in order for solutions to be found that sustain the quality journalism that is so important to the vitality of local communities and our democracy.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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