Thursday, July 15, 2010

Paywalls as Tombstones

Some newspapers seem intent on hugging themselves to death, diminishing their audiences to nothing. After a couple of decades of watching the internet creep its way into every aspect of our lives, publishers big and small have run about flapping their figurative skirts squealing they had to monetize every aspect of their businesses.

Stupidly enough, this recently has turned often to paywalls, charging online visitors to see anything or read a single article. In a few cases, like the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal — whose articles can help people make money — they are successful. (I went on about that six months ago.)

In the main though, it's just dumb in almost all cases. They end up decreasing their audience, making their properties less desirable to advertisers and subscribers alike, and trivializing and minimizing their content.

As the ultimate print alter kaker Rupert Murdoch continues with plans to put paywalls everywhere he can. Little publishers more and more frequently seem to identify with him instead of their readers.

I've attended video god Steve Garfield's Boston Media Makers regularly for a few years. One lesson he's learned and repeatedly hits us with is to share the small to get big benefits. In his case, he is the nation's leading video blogger, author of the new definitive how-to book on it (Get Seen), consults for pay widely, and is a popular speaker. He gives it away to get those paying gigs.

On his site and others, including Rocket Boom and YouTube, he is a relentless and brilliant self-promoter. Going to any of his areas for free video makes viewers hungry. Some then pay him to make videos or teach them how. Others buy his book.

He decidedly does not live in terror of giving something for free. Unlike too many publishers, he lives in this century.

Not Yours!

My most recent awareness of this came when I wanted to check something on two papers' sites. One was local, the Winchester Star, and one from my distant past, the Hampshire Review in Romney, West Virginia. Both have installed highly restrictive paywalls...which is to laugh. Both need to look elsewhere instead of driving away their few readers.

For the Star, click on any headline and get a demand for a subscription instead of a view. That would be $24 for a year of online access, a more outrageous $60 for the digital edition by email, and the high end as befitting a privileged community of $88 for the physical paper in your mailbox. For the RE-vue as they say down there, you can get a truncated version of the weekly as a PDF for $13.95, the whole thing as a PDF for $24.95, or the actual paper mailed for $36.50. You can also send an email to start an order of $3 for a single, specified week's issue.

I have a bit of history with the Review. I spent my summers and holidays in Romney with my grandparents. Every Thursday morning before dawn, the egg and butter lady as well as the Review guy would open the unlocked back door to the kitchen to put their deliveries on the kitchen stool. The paper was a nickel. Everyone got it.

I also knew the now editor, Sallie Ailes See. She inherited the editorship from her father John, who got it from his father-in-law. She is invested literally and figuratively in the paper. She was not an ambitious or rapacious child and even had a full career as a public school teacher before her father retired and handed off the paper.

In both cases of the small papers, they just don't know what to do. They don't get it. Further, I see that the Review expects its audience to send it news, news tips, school news, business news, photos and videos. They might use them, but won't pay for them. That's the old one-way paywall and a terrible business model.

In fairness, neither community has breathtaking demographics. They serve small pubics with limited advertising potential and pretty much fixed subscription potential locally. Winchester's rich, but wee.

One approach to real or feared advertising declines would be to offset these with fees for online access. They can look longingly at the FT and WSJ, extrapolating their own increased cash flow. What the big financial kids have though is something to sell, something that offers a tangible return. Get the premium content from the financial rags, make some money and applaud yourself for smart investment. Spend anything at all for the local rag and you know you are a sap.

Of course in the relative bubble of a wealthy suburb or that of orchard country, parochialism is expected and seems desirable to many. Visitors may be tolerated, if viewed suspiciously, whether they arrive physically or digitally.

Registration and even cookie-based counts are a manageable bit of pain. Those mechanisms do require a little setup and management. However, they really aren't more trouble for the publisher than buying a turnkey payment system or paying a web developer to do the same. The differences are in philosophy.

Fear of the Free

The puerile fear that someone somewhere might somehow get something for free underlies much of paywall strategy. Phrasing it as, "we have to monetize this," may let the publisher pretend this is strictly a business decision. However, you can also look it like a restaurant charging for a bread tray or condiments. The small costs of doing business are often the seamless amenities that take a customer's visit comfortable. As such, they are much cheaper than advertising or other ways of attracting and keeping customers.

The localized dailies and weeklies are bound to fail in their ham-fisted paywall attempts. We can sympathize as they envy papers who can justify fee-to-view models, at least for their premium content. Yet the fact remains that the little guys are being lazy.

Think Steve Garfield. He gives away plenty, daily, and enough to get huge audiences. As one indication, he has 21, 462 followers as of this morning on his Twitter feed. Those are people he an point to all his content, free and pay.

If a Winchester Star or Hampshire Review wants to play this game, its publisher and editor can't dig back down into the same old dirty bag. These papers have to offer new and better products. They have to give away the online version and entice the audience with products they want to buy.

Local gossip is fun and we all enjoy it, but it's not enough for $24 or $88 a year. Where are the videos, features, maybe software or beyond? Publishers need to stop hugging themselves to death. Make it worth people's time and money to buy the premium content they won't be able to find anywhere else.

Get with the program!

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