The San Francisco Chronicle is removing its paywall after just four months and the Dallas Morning News plans to follow suit. Observers are speculating that this could be the end of the nearly two-year-old binge that has seen more than one-third of U.S. newspapers erect barriers to their online content.
Neither company is abandoning the idea of gated content entirely, but both are reportedly pursuing new models based on premium services. That’s basically a reversal of the paywall formula. The premium-service model is aimed at monetizing a small part of the audience while a paywall denies service to everyone except those willing to pay. We think this amounts to a concession from both papers that paywalls are ineffective in their geographies.
San Francisco is a particularly tough place to make a paywall work, with its abundance of media and its tech-savvy audience. Also, the Chron isn’t exactly The New York Times of the west coast. In our view, it was a mediocre newspaper before cutting more than half its staff over the last few years.
All the Chronicle content will now be available on SFGate.com. What content will remain paid? A vaguely worded message from the new publisher and president said the paid SFChronicle.com site “will continue to provide readers with an online version that replicates a newspaper experience and reflects the changes in the news throughout the day.”
Replicating the newspaper experience online is a non-starter. We assume they’re working on better ideas.
The premium content model that the Chron and Dallas Morning News reportedly hope to implement is difficult to pull off. It has worked for ESPN, Cooks Illustrated, Consumer Reports and a number of financial publishers, but we’re not aware of any successes in the general news market. The premium model works best with investor audiences or those who are passionate, affluent and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge about a topic. None of those characteristics applies to local news.
It could be that San Francisco and Dallas are just early indicators that paywalls are not a good strategy for most newspapers. If so, we’ll know soon. Many publishers are coming up on their first year of experience, and they’ll have both the data and the experience to make a decision.
If you need any further evidence that Jeff Bezos is the Lady Gaga of media-watching, look no further than this roundup on Nieman Journalism Lab. Everyone is speculating about what the Amazon.com founder plans to do, but Bezos himself is offering few clues. We didn’t read everything Nieman’s Mark Coddington found, but we did peruse a few analyses.
A profile in The New York Times highlights the paradox of Bezos’ interest in being a media magnate, given that Amazon is an extremely secretive company. “There are fewer leaks out of Amazon than the National Security Agency,” write David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney.
What little we know of Amazon comes from its famously vague quarterly analyst calls. Outsiders are rarely permitted to tour its buildings and even its own executives don’t know where all its data centers are located. Bezos himself makes few public appearances and keeps a low profile in his hometown of Seattle.
So why does he now want to carry the First Amendment flag in our nation’s capitol? Ken Doctor sees three reasons why he and other super-rich people are buying into newspapers: Low valuations, a call of duty and the hubris to believe they can turn around an industry everyone thinks is dying. Also, no one else is willing to do it. “The few remaining people with the stomach to run daily newspapers have bank accounts with at least nine zeros after a non-zero numeral of some kind,” he writes at Nieman.
Kudos to Doctor for reminding us of EPIC 2014, a vaguely creepy spoof video made in 2004 that forecast the emergence of a media Death Star created by the merger of Amazon and Google in 2014. Some of the parallels are striking (watch below).
Writer and futurist Tim Carmody says he’s studied Bezos for years and believes the Amazon founder is driven by a fascination with the future and the urge to leave something behind other than the company he runs. Carmody also has interesting details about the sale of the Post, which appears to have been more a coincidence than a plan. “By all accounts, Bezos did not go looking to buy a newspaper,” he writes. “When he was approached by his friend Donald Graham about buying the Post, he initially begged off considering it.” It was Graham who pushed the deal more than Bezos sought it.
A few consistent threads run through the accounts we read. One is that Bezos is intensely focused on customer experience. The Times relates the story of how Amazon stationed ambulances outside its Allentown, Pa. warehouse during a heat wave rather than turn up the air conditioning or reduce the workload for its employees. Meeting shipping deadlines was more important than the health of its notoriously overworked fulfillment staff.
A second is that Bezos is a long-term thinker who aims high. Whereas many entrepreneurs would have been satisfied to build the world’s largest online bookseller, Bezos has set his sights on becoming an infrastructure powerhouse that can deliver goods and services physically or virtually anywhere in the world. The newspaper industry could benefit from this kind of vision right now.
The third is that Bezos is an unpredictable experimenter who disdains the status quo. It’s a given that he will ruffle feathers among his conservative colleagues in the publishing ranks. Again, not a bad thing.
There are also conflicts of interest that will merit scrutiny. The biggest is Amazon Web Services, a contract data center operation that hosts thousands of large research and commercial entities, including more than 500 government institutions. It’s Amazon’s fastest-growing business, and the government market is a huge opportunity.
Will Bezos be able to balance his dual role as free press agitator and major government contractor? Most people seem to think so. As the Times’ headline summed up: “Expect the Unexpected.”
- Five things Jeff Bezos should do to reinvent the sinking ship that is the Washington Post
- Is the SF Chronicle the beginning of a paywall rollback trend? [GigaOM]
- SF Chronicle Said to Demolish Paywall After Four Months
- Chronicle Kills its Paywall — After Only Four Months
- San Francisco Chronicle Drops Its Paywall
- Dallas Morning News Will Get Rid of Its Paywall and Debut New Premium Site in September (Eric Celeste/FrontBurner)
- This Week in Review: Gauging Bezos’ Post plan, and tech companies’ surveillance dilemma