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Oklahoma college gets into the paywall game

This year promises to see at least three major dailies erect a paywall, including the New York Times, Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News. But these newspapers aren’t the only ones looking to maximize the online subscription dollar. Following in the footsteps of these media giants is Oklahoma University’s Daily O’Collegian, which is being considered a pioneer among its media brethren.

When the paywall goes up sometime in late January, the student-run paper’s site will charge readers who don’t fit a certain criteria. Readers who live 25 miles outside of the Stillwater community, access the website more than three times a month, and don’t have an .edu e-mail address are subject to a payment of $10 a year. “A lot of it came down to a decision on what’s going to bring in money for us because we’ve had our budget cut again and again and again,” said Amanda Bland, Daily O’Collegian editor. “We’re just trying to find out what kind of options we have. It’s just an experiment at this point.”

The paper’s primary audience is the university’s students, but Bland said the audience they would be targeting with the paywall is students’ parents, alumni and past Daily O’Collegian staffers. “I hate to have to charge people for our news content, but it’s just coming down to that we have to do something to bring some money in,” she said. “We’re not expecting to generate a whole lot [of revenue]. I think we feel that at this point, anything helps, but we’re not looking to make a huge profit at all.”

Like many critics, Steve Wilkes, director of student media at the University of Arkansas, believes that changing the way people read the news online is going to continue to be difficult. At the same time, he noted, a college newspaper does provide a unique enough product for it to possibly work. “Generally, no other paper covers a college as well or thoroughly as the campus paper. That might provide a unique enough product to make a paywall successful,” he said in an e-mail interview.

In Wilkes’ experience with the University of Arkansas’ paper, the Arkansas Traveler, students mainly read the print edition while the publication’s online readership comes from alumni and other friends of the University. Although he said the paper has no plans to start charging in the near future, charging non-student readers a small fee doesn’t seem unreasonable, he noted. Of course, it all depends on the readers of each individual newspaper. “Every university newspaper business model is different,” he said. “As such, it is difficult to paint with too broad a brush.”

If previous paywall experiments are any indication, the Daily O’Collegian may do all right. According to the New York Times, preliminary reports from the Journalism Online paywall system have found that ad revenue and overall traffic from approximately two dozen small to medium sized outlets did not show a significant decline. As for Bland, she wishes they could continue to provide all free content, but charging has become a matter of necessity. “I feel like a lot of media, we’re all in the same boat; we’re trying to find ways to make money and serve our audience better and we’re trying to find the way to compromise those two things and find a medium there,” she said. “We’re hoping to boost our budget, and you know kind of see where things are going. We may be a pioneer in college newspapers by doing this, and maybe this will help other colleges newspapers have the courage to charge and boost their budgets too.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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