Part III: Three months into paywall, reader complaints coming in at reduced trickle

The previous post – Part II: Three months into paywall … – might have been more info than many readers would ever want to know.

But so many news organizations are going that way – to online subscriptions – that readers might appreciate that snapshot as well as information in this post from journalists who have worked intimately with paywalls for 15 months.

That Part II post explained why the York Daily Record/Sunday News went with a paywall in 2010 and then with a wider, higher paywall in August 2011.

This is an experiment, which has brought some learnings about the dark side of paywalls:

– This is obvious but I’ll say it: Most readers don’t like them, and it’s simply bad PR to put up a wall between a customer and his or her reading. A subscription is contra to the free and free-wheeling nature of the Web. But this part isn’t so obvious: I say “most readers” because some readers understand that it’s bad business in the current environment to give stuff away.

– Some of you have  shown your displeasure by going to other sites for  news and even removing our sites from your bookmarks. (This means you’re missing much news because no other organization covers York County as comprehensively as we do.) Still, at best, it’s difficult to grow traffic – what we call page views – with a paywall. At worst, a news organization will lose page views in the double digits.

It’s jarring to us to read when news organizations covering the big natural and man-made disasters recently in the news hit all-time traffic highs. At the same time, we’re fighting to reach levels of traffic we saw before the wall went up.

I’m reminded of an experiment chronicled by Sports Illustrated years ago in which some innovators experimented with 11-foot basketball goals. Some of the athletes who could slam dunk at 10 feet just couldn’t get the ball up high enough at the 11-foot height to stuff it.

Or I guess to torture another sports metaphor, vying to exceed historic traffic levels with a paywall is a little like running a marathon wearing ankle weights.

– Some journalism thought-leaders have argued that in a market the size of York County’s, a news organization will quickly exhaust those customers who will pay for news. That appears to be prophetic because our new starts have slowed down since the initial launch.

– Another argument from these thinkers is that the potential or opportunity for a news organization to make money on its stories and photographs – “monetizing content” – is greater if traffic is larger. The more pages accessed by customers, the more opportunity is created to sell advertising. That opportunity will far outpace whatever is brought in via online subscriptions. That argument makes intuitive sense, and we’ll see how this plays out as our experiment continues.

– Some believe news organizations might make a paywall work if it could market it for free or for $1 monthly if, say, a customer pays for a seven-day subscription and an electronic edition of the newspaper. But the way our paywall is set up, such “bundling” is not possible.

So, you, the customer, might not know it but the debate thus rages about paywalls in the halls and conference rooms of media companies.

From a journalist’s perspective, it’s not as complicated. We would not change a thing if our paywall came down.

We are constantly, tenaciously updating our sites – about 20-7 – with content that is not available anywhere else.

Immediacy, as we  call it, has value, and we can provide news and content about York County better than any other news organization.

With or without a paywall.

Thoughts? Comment below.

Also of interest:

– Part I: Three months into paywall, reader complaints coming in at reduced trickle.

Part II: Three months into paywall …

– Part III: Three months into paywall …

– For more explanation about online subscriptions, visit:  http://media.ydr.com/onlinenews.

– For additional paywall posts including other interaction with readers, please see our online subscription page.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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