The newspaper industry needs more experiments in how to grow the revenue that funds local journalism. We’ve lost hundreds of reporters in recent years following the decline in print advertising and circulation, and companies’ failure to replace it with enough digital revenue.
Readers who complain about the introduction of paywalls are met with a predictable reaction from veteran journalists who feel there’s a moral obligation, if not a business model, in people paying to see the work their decades of expertise and everyday hard work has produced.
But so far, paywalls haven’t been about getting people to pay for online content. They are a strategy for getting as much money as possible out of print subscribers by “bundling” online access and increasing rates. Only a few exceptions (i.e. the New York Times and Wall Street Journal) have built a sizable base of paid online-only readership, and they don’t resemble the dynamic faced by local newspapers.
The Hartford Courant is the latest to begin charging for online content. Its pricing model also revolves around print circulation, but is built on a more earnest belief that people will pay for certain kinds of online content.
The New York Times’ “metered paywall” model adopted by many publications allows readers to access a certain number of stories, typically 5 to 10, free online each month. They have to pay for a digital subscription (almost always bundled with print) to go beyond that, or find their way around the paywall through search engine referral, social media exceptions, or a combination of reading from home, work, and mobile.
The Courant, instead, is putting certain “premium” content behind a paywall that can only be accessed if you pay for a digital subscription. What is considered “premium” is likely to evolve and even be designated on a case-by-case basis on certain days, but out of the gate it includes the work of investigative reporter and state government watchdog Jon Lender and columnists such as Colin McEnroe, Kevin Rennie, and Jeff Jacobs.
The bottom line is that far fewer people are going to read and talk about some of the most important accountability journalism produced by the Hartford Courant (or anyone) in Connecticut.
According to the subscription deals currently advertised on the Courant’s website, it will cost $130 a year for digital-only access to this work. For that same price, you can get the Sunday print edition of the Courant for free. For $25 more a year, you can also get Thursday through Sunday print editions. And for $207 a year, you can get digital access plus print seven days a week.
Lender does amazing work. Jacobs is, hands down, the best sports columnist in Connecticut. Rennie breaks state political news all the time. McEnroe is hilarious, brave, and smart. But the number of people who aren’t already print subscribers and would pay $130 a year to read them could fit comfortably in the Courant’s Hartford newsroom.
The state’s largest newspaper joins some smaller competitors in burying work that could have a significant impact, if people beyond print subscribers actually saw it. Hearst’s newspapers in Fairfield County have experimented with running some of their strongest weekend enterprise reporting as “print only.” The Republican-American of Waterbury, whose state government reporter, Paul Hughes, regularly provides unique insights into public policy, has a hard paywall on pretty much all of its online content. Maybe that’s forced some print subscribers to hold on longer than they would have otherwise, slowed the decline and saved some newsroom jobs. But the impact of the work those reporters and editors are doing is muted and limited to greater Waterbury.
That’s bad for public discourse, government accountability, and democracy at a time when we need to be engaging and evangelizing readers on the value of strong accountability reporting.
Lender’s work, for example, has brought down corrupt public officials who had a lot of power over vulnerable people’s lives. He has also exposed the corruption of powerful people who faced virtually no consequences after his columns were published. Newsrooms are tackling accountability journalism with fewer resources and against governments and organizations increasingly brazen about withholding information that belongs to the public. But they are also battling an apathetic citizenry.
Forget putting Lender’s work behind a paywall. Newspapers have to be consistent and creative just to get people to care about the kind of abuse he uncovers.
Meanwhile, people will still be able to read stories like this brief on a woman accused of shoplifting groceries in Waterford for free, and they will!
We certainly do need experiments in sustainable funding for local journalism, and there will be much trial and error in the process. But to assess whether a paywall truly “works,” you have to agree on what that means. Some newspaper chains are using paywalls as a short-term, print-centric strategy which, combined with newsroom cuts, helps maintain profits as the business winds down. A digital strategy that supports local journalism in the long-term won’t be bundled with print. And hopefully, the most important local journalism will see as wide an audience, engagement, and influence as its creators can arrange.
Matt DeRienzo is the former editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press, Connecticut Magazine and other Digital First Media publications in Connecticut and former publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington. Email him . Follow him on Twitter at @mattderienzo.
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