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. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in Digital first, Digital Subscriptions, Editor and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. JJ Sheffer says:

    I am pleased to hear that the YDR continues to examine this issue and consider reader response as you move forward. I can appreciate the need to diversify your funding, and can see how this is a complex issue that is not so easily solved, especially given the ever-changing ways we seek and access news and information.

    I am one of the people who quickly grew frustrated by the YDR paywall, and without making a conscious decision about it, just phased myself out of clicking on or re-posting YDR story links after running into the paywall pop-up a handful of times. I suppose it’s just how I’m wired these days – the pace of life dictates that if I can’t get to the information I’m trying to access, I simply move on. And I won’t re-post links to bad content to my own followers, and a link that leads them to a paywall message instead of the story or message to which I wanted to direct them is most definitely “bad content.”

    I am very interested to see how the paywall issue evolves over time, for the YDR and for other news sources, and of course for us, the consumers. We need to be flexible, and willing to change our habits at a near-constant rate. The sociology behind all of it is fascinating.

    • Jim McClure says:

      J.J.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      It reconfirms decision-making that busy people go through when confronted with the “green screen.”

      We’ll indeed see how this experiment plays out.

      Jim

  2. Joan says:

    JJ, I have to echo Jim and thank you for your thoughful response. One thing I’ll add is that I appreciate very much the concern about sharing a link with a friend and not wanting them to encounter a “wall.” That’s one reason we follow a similar model to the New York Times – stories shared via Facebook and Twitter, and by using the “email this story” link on the article, are always free of the payment mechanism.

    There’s definitely debate about that, but I’m proud that we’ve gone that way with our payment experiment – to me, there is value in the ability to share information with your friends, and I’m glad we’ve gone this route.

    - Joan Concilio, online editor

  3. Kim says:

    I used to subscribe to the paper, but the delivery was so terrible that I gave up my subscription. After repeated complaints, the problem still was not solved. I buy the paper every day, and find it highly unfair that only people who subscribe can view the online content. Maybe if delivery were truly improved more people would have/renew a subscription.

  4. Jim McClure says:

    Kim,
    First, we have passed your delivery problem on to circulation, and customer service reps will soon be in touch.

    Secondly, I want to assure you we value customers like yourself who buy the paper everyday – whether at the news stand or via home delivery. I’m thinking that you’ll save money by going with home delivery, and we will solve that delivery problem.

    Wanted to clear up the concern that only home delivery customers get to view online content. Home delivery customers do get a break on the online subscription rate – $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year vs. $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year for people who do not get the newspaper delivered. But for anyone viewing us online, there is a charge after five free pageviews.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.
    Jim

  5. RJK says:

    There is, as you probably know, a way around the paywall. I won’t say what it is for reasons that are pretty obvious. The YDR likely knows it can close this back door, but this would force the YDR to take away the five page view deal. If I visited the site on a regular basis, I would become an Internet subscriber as a matter of principle. It’s a rare month that I exceed the five page view limit, however.

    That said, I think the YDR would be wise to allow unlimited access to blog posts but retain the paywall for news stories. Blogs are a great promotional tool for newspapers. Many papers that employ paywalls “tease” their paywall stories through their blogs. We have a local paper that posts videos to a special blog featuring reporters and editors discussing the stories of the day and sharing a bit of background on these stories. To read the actual stories online, a subscription to the paper’s e-edition is required. The video interviews are often more interesting than the stories. But it works. And you’re in no danger of going blind looking for links to the subscription page.

    The blogs also allow the newspaper to generate Internet advertising revenue. There is no online advertising in the e-edition. This blog approach has resulted in the paper recovering most of the web traffic it lost when it switched over to a paid e-edition. The e-edition is static. The blogs are interactive. Each enhances the other. It makes for good reader experience.

    • Jim McClure says:

      RJK,

      First thanks for your comments.

      We have indeed discussed lifting the paywall on blogs. As a social media platform, they should be free, almost by definition. This YDR Insider blog has no meter, for example. And as a daily blogger at http://www.yorktownsquare.com, I’d like as many eyeballs on my stuff as possible.

      Having said this, there is a cost for producing the blogs, and the blog traffic has not decreased significantly. This means that loyal readers are sticking with it. Of course, they aren’t growing either, to your point.

      And your point is well taken about the promotional value of blogs. I personally do 2-3 “link salads” a week, taking readers all over our sites.

      Our paywall is an experiment. We’re seeing what we can learn, and we’re reticent to change too many variables because then you change the experiment. Still, I’m thinking that as we introduce new blogs, we’ll entertain a yes/no decision concerning whether they’re free or paid, based on points that you raise.

      Btw, as to your first point, I’m not sure there’s a link between your workaround and the 5 free page view deal. And I love your view that that if you regularly visited ydr.com, you’d pay.

      Uh, how can we entice you to become a regular?

      Jim

  6. RJK says:

    Because I’m just checking in on my hometown on a very infrequent basis, I’m not really a candidate to become a subscriber. There are probably a lot of ex-pats who do the same. They’re also not potential subscribers.

    But if you put all these eyeballs together, you’re looking at a whole lot of page views that, if nothing else, could be harvesting AdSense revenue or something similar that would likely offset much of the cost involved in producing a news blog designed to give the reader half of the loaf and, perhaps, lure him into buying the whole loaf. Which is where your industry is headed.

    We know the paywall approach is a Band-Aid designed to tide over content providers until e-readers reach a saturation level where the printing press becomes obsolete, we stop cutting down trees and no longer rely on delivery by 12-year-olds. Not there yet.

    Paywalled traditional websites aren’t e-reader friendly, however. YDR.com works, but it’s a struggle. Give me something truly designed for online reading and I might be more tempted to subscribe. And, to be candid, e-reader readers tend to provide advertisers with the demographics they’re chasing. People who can shell out the bucks for an iPad or similar have already proven they have money to shell out for other stuff. The day will come, and we’re already seeing it, when advertisers no longer bother to ask about print circulation.

    Experimenting with what is, at best, an interim product strikes me as something of a distraction. The time in the lab could be better spent on getting out ahead of the curve with something that takes advantage of technology that is relatively inexpensive, readily available, adds value and puts newspapers back in the game. Until you get there, however, you need to keep your readers on the reservation. You don’t do this by locking them out. That’s pretty much what paywalls do.

    But I’ll stop telling you how to run your business. This consultation is on the house.

    • Jim McClure says:

      RJK,

      We certainly don’t feel like you’re telling us how to run things. In fact, we appreciate your concern and counsel.

      We’re in the process of developing a “native” news app for tablets that will get at part of what you’re suggesting. It will provide a user experience one expects on such a device and currently envision it to be free.

      I’m going to quibble a bit with your view toward print. I’d say that news about print’s death is a bit premature. In York and in smaller cities and towns, the “newspaper” is still a good business, a very good business. We’re unabashedly digital first, print later here in York, but that does not mean that print is unimportant. Print, or the newspaper, is one product or platform we produce, and it’s later in the newsgathering process. We put up stories and photos on the Web as soon as we have them. Immediacy here is huge. The content then flows out to smart phones and tablets from there. When it’s time to publish the newspaper, we do so.

      So the newspaper is part of a process that is dominated by our work on digital platforms. Eventually – it will be years – print will become unprofitable, and we’ll shut down that platform. Or more likely, we’ll print fewer days of the week. But our newsgathering and digital delivery will just keep spinning.

      Make sense?

      Please keep in touch.

      Jim

  7. Randy Parker says:

    This is a very interesting dialogue. One that is critical to most of us in this business, and to anyone who cherishes what local newsrooms offer.

    RJK, you noted that if we give you something truly designed for online reading, you might be more tempted to subscribe.

    I contend that online subscriptions reflect the fact that what we do online is specifically designed for online reading. Design and presentation will continue to evolve as technology, skills and experiences change, but have long ago abandoned an approach that merely mimics what was done in print.

    YDR.com is a constantly changing reflection of the latest news and information for and about York County. It does not merely tell you what happened yesterday. It does not serve your needs only at the breakfast table.

    YDR.com and its many channels and platforms — including GameTimePa.com, FlipsidePa.com, Facebook and Twitter, etc. — offer a dynamic, interactive, multi-media presentation of “now.”
    Only the newspaper is designed for an “offline” experience.

    The resources needed to fuel such an ever-changing news site far outweigh what are needed for a daily news paper.

    Online subscriptions reflect what is already offered. They are not designed to prop up print efforts, and they are not designed to build up investment for what might be.

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