York reader’s paywall perspective sparks subscription debate

A terrific dialogue has ensued in a recent post I made here at the YDR Insider. It’s exactly the type of conversation we were looking for when we launched this blog site.

I shared an email exchange I had with a reader named Cathy, who was not happy about our decision to charge for unlimited access to our web-based content. What’s more, she offered thoughtful options for us to pursue.

If we were to get any comments on that post, I thought, they would be purely in support of Cathy’s view that we should not charge. To my surprise, we have seen debate on this. Some of the commenters have spelled out why our industry should be charging. Others. of course, have rallied behind Cathy. And she has reinforced her stand with even more thoughts, such as:

I agree there must be a business model that can make an online newspaper profitable. My hunch is it will look a lot different from the print newspaper business model. Randy’s comment that an all free online paper means charging more for the print version tell me YDR isn’t looking at the big picture. Yahoo is free to the user and quite profitable and certainly not supporting their online content with a printed paper. Of course they do it with advertising. When I log on to Yahoo there are ads for Bare Minerals makeup. When my boyfriend logs on to Yahoo there are ads for Bass Pro Shop. The same targeted marketing can take place at YDR.

It’s fascinating for me to watch such discussions unfold because they mirror heated discussions we had within our company for nearly a year. The York Daily Record was chosen as one of two beta sites for our parent company’s experiment with the paywall concepts. MediaNews Group, the second-largest newspaper company in America, wanted to explore this issue. So for months in 2010 and 2011, we were meeting on the phone and in person with some of the best minds available. Because we were basically inventing something, there was plenty of room for debate, discussion and, well … fights.

I came to be seen as one of the most passionate supporters of a paywall. I didn’t start out that way. At first I thought this was a suicide mission. In time, though, I came to see many advantages. I’ll continue to spell those out in this section of this blog, but you can see many of my thoughts in this column, published last year.

Even so, I never lost respect for the other side of the argument. Perhaps that is because I believe that a pay-to-play model is, at best, a temporary solution. Technology will continue to advance, habits will continue to evolve. We have to know that we will never sit still for long. Today’s revolutionary concept is tomorrow’s basic expectation. Or worse, it is tomorrow’s quaint notion.

But for now, the advertising world that Cathy envisions is not working for local newspapers. We have aggressively pursued such efforts, and for a lot of interesting reasons, they have not sufficiently sustained us. As an industry, we have bled money over the past generation. Money lost to many online competitors has not been replaced with our own online revenue. We have plans — good plans that are already in motion — to change that. If those plans work, there will be no need for online subscriptions. If they work, Cathy’s vision will bear out.

In the meantime, we need to explore all possibilities to ensure our viability as an industry. Not to get rich. Not to try to become the next Google Gazillionaires. But to ensure that our communities are well-served by credible, independent, aggressive and well-resourced local newsrooms.


About Randy Parker

Managing Editor, York Daily Record/Sunday News and ydr.com
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6 Responses to York reader’s paywall perspective sparks subscription debate

  1. Stephen says:

    As I mentioned in my previous post, you should really lay out for people the mathematics involved in online advertising. People sincerely think that online ads drive a lot of revenue for you at this paper. People should be educated to the fact that it is more complicated than that, and that past a certain point (at most 75% of pageviews), online ads bring in basically no revenue. Thus, if a paper loses half its pageviews due to a paywall, it is giving up nothing at all. In the long term, online is clearly the future, but this future may still be ten or twenty years away. In the mean time, paywalls will still likely bring in 10x or 20x the revenue that online ads ever will.

  2. Stephen says:

    BTW… this is a great blog and a great, open, honest discussion regarding the future of news and this newspaper. The link to Paton’s blog shows you are willing to engage your readers in a peer-level, respectful dialog. It is a blessing to be born in interesting times, and those of us in news have been quite ‘blessed’. Heh heh…perhaps more than we ever wanted.

  3. Randy Parker says:

    Thank you, Stephen. And you are right about the basics of online revenue.

    At this point, most news sites have way more traffic than they can sell. I think I’ll work on a separate blog post about that. I’d be interested in links to any good articles you have seen on the matter.

  4. Stephen says:

    Frankly, it blows my mind that there are not more articles out there on the simple math of online advertising for newspapers. I wonder if it is just that no one wants to suffer the indignity of reporting how meagre the digital revenues really are. Newspapers’ website’s would be wise to talk to their online viewers like adults who know math and just show them how it really is- how little online advertising revenues really are, usually one tenth that of print.

    Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News lays it out like a champ.

    And this is a great summary of how we got into this mess.

    John Paton is right. The future is digital. But that future may be ten, fifteen years off, when the supply/demand issues resolve themselves. This is a problem facing all news organizations. The largest online news presence, The Huffington Post did 30M in revenue in 2010. This is peanuts. This is the revenue of a largish car dealership. That they were bought out only speaks to the escalating series of bad decisions happening at AOL. The massive Patch.com, with over 800 local sites, did 8M dollars in all of 2011 and is likely losing over 100m dollars per year…so they’re late in their last year alive.

    However it shakes out, people should be reminded that reporters must be paid and ten years may be too long to wait. Nothing is free…work is always with us. As Pope John Paul II noted “work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons”. All that will ever emerge for free out of ‘the cloud’, the ‘social network’ is the incessant, self-interested, self-congratulatory tribalism of Facebook and the like. Newspapers are the true custodians of our community of persons.

  5. Cathy Haynes says:

    I appreciate the insight into this subject. I want to reiterate that I am just one reader. I’m not against the paper making money in fact the more successful businesses in the area the better in my opinion. And I didn’t object to the fee because I can’t afford it or think it is unfair or unjust. Simply thought I’d point out that I’m a click away from almost all the same information for free. The first time I got the pop up telling me of the fee I searched the keywords of the story I was reading, found it on another site with no fee. I used to get my local news on Lancasteronline and YDR. Now I have a handful of local news sites I visit, and have gone from being a daily reader of the aforementioned two to once a week or less.

    It will be interesting to watch the evolution of local news with this new media. I would not be at all surprised to see most local papers, printed papers that is, become weeklies. Local news writers all free lance and selling their work to online and print entities both. I’d love to have the ability to “build” my own online newspaper, by subscribing only to what interests me. A local news feed that I could customize (I’ve no need for a local sports feed). I’d put a block on any story about Casey Anthony. I’ve already set news alerts for subjects that interest me, so “my” paper would automatically search for and feed them to my page, It would have my weather, and traffic for my commute to Harrisburg from Lancaster. The entertainment section would comment on South Park but not Demi and Ashton. A feed of the listings of my favorites from Etsy.com And of course I’m sure my ever faithful Bare Minerals and Old Navy ads would be there too.

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses. I’ve learned from you and appreciate that.

  6. rebecca says:

    I agree with Cathy. Steve, you also make so good points too. For me one month the 5 free views maybe more then enough but next it might not be. So may YDR can figure out a way to come up with one time fee you can pay for an extra 15-20 views (doesn’t have to be those exact numbers) for between 1.99 to 2.99 only when you need to view more then 5 but less then a few time day or week. This way if you read one month and not the next you are only paying for what you use instead of the reoccurring monthly fee or full year fee. Like Cathy, I am only one person and this my opinion.

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