Will pay walls make news orgs irrelevant?

Posted: June 25th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , , | View Comments

box_kittensAs a follow up to Tuesday’s post, I contacted John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, to get his thoughts on the fact that 75 percent of the N.C. Press Association‘s newsroom leaders are at least thinking about charging for online content.

Robinson has fully embraced social media. He sports about 800 followers on Twitter and frequently uses the microblogging service to create a dialogue with his community as well as fellow journalists. I figured that makes his opinions particularly salient, since I feel like its social media that will be impacted by a news organization’s decision to placed their content behind a pay wall.

Robinson agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail about his perception of pay walls and the future of online content for the News & Record.

N&R Editor John Robinson

N&R Editor John Robinson

Why do you think the discussion about whether to charge for online content has intensified so much recently?

Two reasons: The economic downturn has hurt newspaper revenues immediately; and the expectation that the recession is going to last a long time will hurt them for, well, a long time. So, newspapers are looking to create revenue streams wherever they can. The most obvious place – or I should say “new” place – is online where revenue has slowed through the traditional advertising avenues – banners, etc.

If news organizations were to begin charging for news, how do you think original, well reported enterprise stories will rise above the saturated media climate and get noticed?

I’m not sure I understand the question, but I’ll take a shot at answering what I think you’re asking. Assuming you’re asking about stories by news orgs, they will be noticed by the people buying them, in paper or online. Then, TV will pick them up for broadcast and rewrite them for their Web sites. And then they’re out there, and the news orgs that charge will lose most of the traffic for the story. Of course, I happen to think that a lot of that goes on now. And it’s gone on for a long time. A newspaper publishes a story, and local TV reports the story, occasionally crediting the newspaper, but often not.

What kind of content do you believe readers are willing to pay for online? Why do you think that’s different when it comes to print?

I don’t think many readers are willing to pay for content online. If we start charging, we’d need to figure out what we could do that is so different and enterprising and valuable that people would pay for it. Nothing comes to mind right now, which isn’t to say that there’s not anything. When it comes to print people are buying an entire package, which, really, is quite a simply, efficient package, if that’s what you want. You get news and advertising and opinion and games all for 50 cents or less. I also think a lot of people buy it because it is printed on paper and they prefer that to the computer or the television.

There seems to be this assertion that newspapers made a big mistake when they decided not to charge for content online. Do you think this is true?

I think it’s a goofy discussion, honestly. What, all newspapers in the country were going to make decisions not to go online? How many would it take to break that embargo to reach a tipping point where every paper went online? Not many, I’d say. And you know how independent news organizations are. But to answer directly: I don’t know. I don’t think about it enough because it’s irrelevant.

Why do you think the focus has shifted so much from finding sustainable advertising models to generating funding from subscriptions, especially when subscriptions are such a small piece of most news organizations’ funding models?

I think it has shifted for three reasons. First, online advertising revenue has slowed & companies are realizing it isn’t bringing in the revenue once hoped for. Second, we look elsewhere where we’re delivering content that generates traffic, but little revenue. So why not go after it? As I said before, news orgs are looking for revenue streams wherever they can get them. And, really, why shouldn’t they? Of course, whether paywalls are the answer is a different question. And third, we aren’t all that good at innovation so “finding sustainable advertising models,” when so many funding models have already failed, isn’t the first place we turn.

Do you believe pay models are in the future for the News & Record?

We’re certainly looking at ways to make more money off the digital operation. A whole lot of ideas are being batted around. Where we’ll land is still undetermined. It wouldn’t surprise me, though.

Just as a follow up to my question about unique stories getting noticed, my thinking is that a pay wall would reduce the ability for a really incredible enterprise story to be shared and discussed by the online community. For example, we wouldn’t be able to retweet it or share it on Facebook. It seems like the story would have less reach, and thus, less impact — especially if local TV news decides to take a pass on rehashing it in the 5 p.m. newscast.

Is there a way that great stories behind a pay wall can get around this, or do you think it’s not really too much of an issue?

You’re right. We wouldn’t get that viral appeal…but I don’t know that newspaper incredible enterprise has that much viral appeal now. We have been publishing a series of stories about recruiting athletes among high schools. Very little discussion that I can find online…except on our site where people are leaving comments. Same with an investigative series about a planned highway that will destroy dozens – maybe hundreds — of people’s homes. Maybe it doesn’t go viral because we do have it available on our site. I don’t know.

But let’s say people do want to share and discuss those stories and we’ve locked them behind a paywall. I suspect that some enterprising blogger who does subscribe – how can you be a blogger interested in the sorts of topics newspapers write about and not subscribe? – will write about the story and post decent chunks of it on his/her site as part of the post. Not all, so that he/her would run afoul of Fair Use, but enough. We miss the traffic and the conversation. Will a high paywall lead us into irrelevance? That’s my fear.

  • Let me add that I'm in the "no, don't do it!" camp and have taken that position here every time it has come up. I won't be the ultimate decider though.
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