Newspaper choices: Build paywalls or build bridges with audiences?

I see another regional title is going to have a bash at paywalling content. Yes, I did just verb Paywall but if that was the only thing that bothered you about the opening sentence then well done, you’re an excellent sub. Now go correct lolcat spelling or something.

But kudos to Wolverhampton Express & Star for marking to the very month the anniversary of Johnson Press giving a midnight burial to its paywall scheme…by launching a paywall scheme.
The axed Johnson Press plan, which saw a £5 subscription levied on audiences who wanted to read stories on some local sites (the experiment was not rolled out across all group sites), was done away with in March 2010 although JP declined to talk about the whys and wherefores.
I’d imagine the why was because no one paid a bean towards looking at the content, but that’s just me speculating.

Undaunted, the Express & Star is planning a new ‘premium’ section on its website which audiences will have to pay to see. The full story is on Hold The Front Page (not too many comments from anonymous keyboard warriors yet but give them time*see update below) but these, for me, were the standout points:
  • The Midlands News Association title will continue to publish highlights of the day’s news on the front page of its website
  • “We’re not trying to sell this as a standalone, in competition to the hard copy paper. It’s a package to add value and help the overall circulation.” [Deputy editor Keith Harrison]
  • Editors will decide which stories will appear on which side of the paywall on a case-by-case basis

I don’t believe paywalls on regional titles are the solution to media companies’ troubles; I blogged the reasons for my views here and here and nothing that’s happened in the regionals sector since then has led me to change my mind.
The other school of thought is to drive revenues through apps. I did buy Vanity Fair as an iPad app in February – I wanted to read the Assange interview on a plane journey – but I never got around to reading it as I got the full gist of what he said on the Guardian website (via Twitter). Free. If it hadn’t been in the Guardian, I would have got it off a blog site. Free.
I haven’t read the rest of VF either and I can’t be bothered – it’s Too Much Information presented in a linear way, and I’m just not in the market for it. I don’t want my print content reproduced electronically; I want a Pulse, or a Flipboard approach ( with good content, please); I am a distracted individual and if you want my attention for long you need to start telling me what people like me are interested in as I probably don’t have the time or the inclination to discover it for myself. 

Is there anything in an average newspaper’s editorial pages that I would pay to read online? Doubtful. Information is just so ubiquitous that I can’t imagine not being able to get, if not the whole story, at least the shape of it from my networks. Plus I’d get their views on it at the same time.  

I would possibly pay to be part of a newspaper’s reader club if – big if – there was value in it for me. But then you’d need to start working out what’s of value to your disparate audience and tailoring packages to their requirements, which would mean Marketing is probably the most important department in a newspaper business at the moment.
The old newspaper model was built around providing a platform for people who wanted to buy space somewhere that had many eyes on it, and it’s been blasted apart by the internet. The new way of doing business means phrases like customer relationship management, consumer insights, digital footpaths and the like are crucial to the wider business. 
 Equally, journalists who can strike a good working relationship with the digital marketeer in their department is also going to be a step ahead of the competition in terms of what’s being read, discussed, shared, downloaded, reblogged, ‘liked’ on Facebook or any other myriad sharing sites you care to mention. For me, newspaper companies would be better off investing in digital marketing than in building paywalls. There are enough barriers between us and audiences already.
* Update: The keyboard warriors have indeed arrived. As has a David Higgerson blog post on the issue)

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2 thoughts on “Newspaper choices: Build paywalls or build bridges with audiences?

  1. Frankly, I don't see how paywalls can work. I mean… if I can get something for free somewhere… why would I pay for it?

    It's like bottled water. You can also get it for free from your tap! Companies thought that people would pay for guaranteed quality and convenience. They were wrong. No one buys bottled water. it's not in stores. It doesn't exist. It hasn't made billions of dollars.


  2. Stephen, unless there's a significant investment by the regionals – in digital storytelling, visualisation, data capture, digital marketing, advertising, sponsorship, commercial partnerships and much, much more – coupled with a wholesale rethink on the packaging and presentation of content they aren't putting anything of unique value online. Equally, bundled web/print/app offers in the nationals market have not had the conversion rates that were predicted, and that's with serious money being thrown at it.
    Sarcasm won't change that, nor will ill-applied analogies.


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