Paywalls are not the answer

Adding a paywall is a short term solution to print media's failure to embrace the digital revolution.

Forbes is reporting that all Gannett papers, with the exception of the USA Today, will be putting their content behind a partial paywall. After a person reads between five and 15 articles in a given month, they’ll be forced to login with a paid subscription. By the end of the year, our local Democrat & Chronicle will be setup this way as well. Gannett has been doing this with a half a dozen of their properties in other parts of the country for a while now, so obviously their metrics tell them it’s working. What they might be losing in page views, ad impressions, and clicks from loyal online readers unwilling to pay they’re seeing more than offset in subscription fees. Seems like a good way to combat declining subscription rates and survive the changing landscape, right? I disagree. I think they’re going to have short term success but they’re missing the long term opportunity.

Charging for that same content is traditional thinking and fails to harness the true power of the web. They should be looking at the internet as a way to deepen their relationship with readers, allow their reporters to interact with readers, and provide content in ways that print media is incapable of. Consider these strategies they could have pursued instead – each of which would provide them differentiation from other news sources in their region and engage rather than frustrate readers:

  • Use the web to provide historical context to stories. Consider that they publish an article on the outcome of the trial. Generally within that article they’ll provide a paragraph or two of background on the case. On the web they should provide links to the articles they published over the months preceeding the descision, from the crime to the arrest and through the trial. Properly executed and promoted, it would serve to drive increased in page views by bringing print edition readers to the web and web readers to view more pages than just the one story.
  • Use the web to provide additional content that doesn’t fit in space or format in print. Readers that are particularly interested in a story will come to the web (or click into an “additional resources” section) to read interviews that didn’t make it to the main article, see extra photos, or watch related video. If you think that sounds far fetched, try to explain DVD extras. It’s the same concept – give people a reason to buy (which in this case means viewing additional pages) by providing them content beyond the main feature.
  • Use the web to give the content some personality. I know, reporters are supposed to be robotic fact gatherers that spit back out unbiased information. The fact is the reporters are members of the local community with their own insight about the stories they cover. I’m not advocating they take a political stand on issues. I’m simply pointing out it’s not the worst thing in the world if you give them a forum beyond the traditional report. Some of our local TV and news reporters are already doing a great job with this. For example – check out Victoria Freile’s twitter feed. The D&C should integrate this, not ignore it and essentially limit her ability to drive readers to the site.

My prediction is the paywall provides them with short term success but they ultimately will see their decline continue as they fight, rather than embrace, the power of the web.