Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Newspaper Paywalls

I've never subscribed to the local newspaper. I can read everything online for free, and the online version of the newspaper is more convenient for me than the hard copy anyway, so what's the point? And even if the newspaper did put up a paywall and start charging for online access, I can get my local news elsewhere, right? Such is the plight of newspapers these days.

It's too bad. While local and national news broadcasts (and their corresponding websites, many of which don't have much more than transcribed versions of their on-air stories) often appeal to the "lowest common denominator" and focus too much on crime, fear, and sensationalist stories in order to maximize ratings, newspapers still (mostly) focus on on "real issues", "actual news", and "good journalism", Thus, I believe a newspaper is still the best source for news, even today.

Fortunately for me, the three newspapers I read the most online - the (Raleigh) News and Observer, Washington Post, and (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, have avoided paywalls. But that's about to change, because the News and Observer website is putting up a paywall later this year.

Will I pay? Depends on how much it costs, of course. I don't know how much online newspaper access (or even a hard copy newspaper) costs these days. But long term, it will be interesting to see how well the quality of the News and Observer's reporting holds up over time. It's not like local newspapers everywhere are experiencing financial booms post-paywall and are suddenly rehiring all of the staff they've laid off over the last few years. At best, the new revenue source is just enough to stay barely afloat for another year. Unless you're one of a handful of nationally known newspapers with a nationwide reach (New York Times, Washington Post, etc), your days are numbered. Paywall or no paywall, local newspapers' financial resources - and thus, the quality of their reporting - will continue their steady decline.

Not only that, but when you end unlimited access for everyone, you're likely going to become less relevant, and that continues the cycle. Instead of being a relevant local news source that most in the area have heard of and are familiar with, now all of a sudden you're the Durham Herald-Sun. (Anyone read the Herald-Sun? No? Didn't think so.) The "metered paywall" approach, which I believe the News and Observer plans on implementing (X free articles per month, then the paywall kicks in) helps that some, in part by allowing article content to be "Googleable" and read by people from other parts of the country and world who will obviously never pay for a subscription to a Raleigh newspaper. But is it enough?

So perhaps the question I should be asking is not "How much will it cost?", but instead, "Given the current state of the newspaper industry, will it be worth it?" I don't know the answer to that yet.

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