A reader offers ydr.com advice on the paywall

Sometimes people just complain. But once in a while, people who have a complaint offer real, tangible options to consider.

This happened recently when I received an email titled “You’ve lost a reader.” The woman who wrote this said it would be OK for me to write about our exchange, though she asked that I use her first name only.

Here’s what Cathy wrote:

I can’t believe your paper wants to charge people to read online stories. Bad idea. The news is out there, everywhere. I will get it elsewhere, as will hundreds more like me. Sure you will have some die hard locals that subscribe but meanwhile you are turning your back on the NATION. Don’t you understand how search engine results work? Stories that are read a lot and forwarded a lot show up in news feeds more frequently. They get picked up by CNN and other big news websites. The people that read your stories the more hits your website gets. The more hits your website gets the more valuable your ad space is. You are limiting your hits and devaluing your ads and I am sure the couple bucks a month you charge your subscribers does not make up for that. Readership of printed papers is down. That is the new reality. If you want to stay ahead of this new curve you will do your best to INCREASE your online readership, not turn them away. Meanwhile, you’ve lost another potential reader. I will get my York news from sources like WGAL.com and PennLive (patriot news)

I got back to her with a personal response, much of which was based on some standard language I have used to explain why we are charging for online access.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter. I can tell by your response that this is important to you.

The local content we post online requires the dedicated resources of local reporters, photographers, designers and editors. The internet has transformed our newsroom from a once-a-day production effort into a round-the-clock news and information hub. We must provide all the content the community has come to expect from a traditional newspaper as well as be the leader in online news. We are now videographers as well as writers. Our social media network includes Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and dozens of blogs. All of this is terrific. But we must flourish as a business if we are to flourish as a news source. We cannot afford to give away this content online.

Your point about the value of serving readers through search engines and social media links is well met. And that is why we allow such readers to access such articles at no cost. However, to gain the full experience of our sites, and to continue to have unlimited access to our content, a subscription is required.

We offer a number of online subscription plans, and if you choose to subscribe, I’m sure that you will find more than your money’s worth.

You can choose to receive unlimited access to everything we offer at ydr.com, GameTimePa.com and FlipsidePa.com, as well as everything offered at InYork.com and YorkDispatch.com. If you are a home delivery customer, you can get all of that online content for just $1.99 a month, or $19.99 a year.
If you do not receive the paper at home, you can get an online-only subscription for just $5.99 a month or $59.99 a year.

Or, for even less money, you can get a subscription to what we call the “e-edition”. This is an online replication of each day’s newspaper. You will see the same paper you would have received if you got home delivery. You can view this on any computer, and we have a special app for this if you use an iPad tablet. You can subscribe to the e-edition at this site:
http://www.inyork.com/e-edition

I suspect that your objection to an online subscription is more a matter of principal than a matter of finances, since it is such a small amount. And I can understand that. You have come to count on the online site as a source of news and information throughout the day. For a long time, it made sense for this to be free. But the growing costs of providing news online has forced us to change the way we do business there. I hope you can understand that, and that we can continue to be your No. 1 source of news and information for York County.

Mostly, Cathy, I want to thank you for taking the time to write. This is important to you, and I wanted you to know that we hear you, and take your thoughts into consideration.

Regards,

Randy Parker

Nine times out of 10, such an exchange stops there. I rarely hear back from readers after I offer an explanation. Does that mean I’ve persuaded them, or that they just don’t wish to debate further? Hard to tell. But Cathy got back to me with a clear, coherent, and passionate response:

Randy-
I appreciate your thoughtful response. And you are correct, it is a matter of principal, not cost. I am all in favor of your paper making money. Not just covering expenses but earning a profit. The more money you bring in the better your product will be and the readers benefit from that.

But I feel your method of making money is misdirected. If you were to encourage online reading for free and actively support efforts that encourage the reading and sharing and commenting on articles you would increase your readership substantially. That increase would justify higher advertising rates. Not just local ads, but National ads. It seems to me your paper (and the Lancaster newspaper too, I suspect a similar business plan if not joint ownership) is trying to apply the old rules to this new online media. In the past if you wanted to read the news you bought a paper. Ads and subscriptions and newsstand purchases paid the bills. Seems logical to think the same could apply online, pay to read like before, but it does not. I’m a click away from the same news for free.

The ads, however, have also changed. When I bought a printed paper the same ads appeared on the page for me as they did for every reader. This morning, when I logged on to my (free) email account, and ad appeared that showed me a sweater that is on sale at Old Navy. The difference from a newspaper ad is that I had shopped the Old Navy site last weekend. I had put that EXACT sweater in my virtual shopping cart but chose not to complete the transaction. Today’s ad was not a coincidence of course. Old Navy was specifically targeting me with that specific ad based on my ip address. That is the new advertising. It is effective. I bought the sweater. Valuable advertising information is collected every day and sites with lots of hits can capitalize on that.

But hey, that is just my opinion. And I’m just one reader.

Best wishes!
Cathy

So Cathy’s just one reader, but here we have an audience of much more than that. What do you think about our new business model? And if you don’t like the idea of subscribing for online content, what do you propose we do? I doubt you’d be reading this article if you did not have a distinct interest in seeing local news organizations thrive.

If you were the boss, what would you do?

And for further discussions and debate on this issue, follow our series of paywall posts at YDR Insider.

About Randy Parker

Managing Editor, York Daily Record/Sunday News and ydr.com
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