By paulgillin | August 16, 2011 - 6:47 am - Posted in Fake News

Tool boothThe Helena (Mont.) Independent Record just introduced a subscription plan for digital customers. Here’s how the paper describes it:

We will not be charging to view the following content online: the front page, classifieds, all advertisements and advertising promotions, special sections, auctions, community calendar or customer service pages.

Webpages that will be charging for viewership – after 15 free views per month – are local, state, national and world news pages; local and regional sports; news accessed by Facebook and Twitter; opinion pages; obituaries; entertainment (except AP wire); health, outdoors, weddings, anniversaries; births, lottery; weather; archives; comments; photo galleries and videos.

A monthly online subscription is $4.99; if you have a print subscription, your online subscription is only $1.99 per month. An annual online subscription is $49.99 per year; or if you have a print subscription, it is only $19.99.

Got all that? Better keep a pen and paper handy, because once you get to those 15 views, get out the credit card. That is, unless you’re reading the front page or a “special section,” whatever that is. And forget about the kind of free pass from Twitter that The New York Times gives you. Social media referrals count toward the 15-ppm limit.

In Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser has joined the paywall parade. Here’s how described its plan:

Existing print subscribers get free digital access. Non-print subscribers can either sign up for an “all-access” package for $19.95 per month, which includes digital access and a print subscription for one person, or purchase a digital-only subscription—the price of which varies based on location.  Oahu residents pay $9.99 per month or $50 per year; other Hawaii residents pay $4.95 per month or $25 per year, and those outside the state of Hawaii pay $1.95 per month or $10 per year. The site is also offering a $0.99 day pass, primarily aimed at tourists and former tourists who are interested in specific events.

Clear enough? If you really want to know what’s going on in Hawaii, you’re best off moving out of state. God forbid you’re unlucky enough to live in the newspaper’s home city.

One more example, from the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle:

Digital-only subscribers get unfettered access to our site for $6.95 per month. This subscription fee will include the iPad app as well. Current print subscribers pay a reduced rate of only $2.95 to add these services…Passers-by and casual readers still will have access to breaking news, video, photos and blogs. We also will allow all users access to 25 premium pages monthly as a sample.

With 46% of small newspapers already charging for some online content, and another 39% planning to do so, the online news world will soon be pockmarked with digital toll booths, each charging different fees. Even the major metros can’t agree on a plan. assembled a comparison chart of what the big papers are doing earlier this year. If you can find any patterns there, let us  know.

We’re not saying variety is a bad thing – lots of businesses compete on price – but when the product is already perceived as a commodity, then confusion tends to drive customers away. Small publishers evidently don’t see it that way, given the large number that are settling in the paywall camp these days. But are they growing their businesses or just trying to protect what’s left of them?

Mathew Ingram said it well in a recent piece in BusinessWeek:

The biggest flaw in a paywall isn’t that the math is questionable, or even that a wall is inherently a backward-facing strategy, aimed at stacking sandbags around a paper’s content…The biggest flaw…is that walling up your content is an invitation to free competitors…to come and take away your readers.

One of the major reasons the newspaper industry is in such dire straits right now is because barrriers to entry have collapsed. Paywalls are an invitation to competitors to take away all but the most loyal (i.e., oldest) readers. AOL’s Patch has recently opened an outpost in our home town, and we admire the work its tiny staff is doing to bring us news from around the corner that our regional daily doesn’t cover. Despite allegations of sweatshop-like working conditions at Patch, we believe AOL will have no trouble finding journalists to staff its local offices. Between Patch, labor-of-love sites like this one and an assortment of listservs and Facebook pages, we’re more aware of what’s going on in our community than we ever were when we subscribed to a daily.

We believe that paywalls can work if they are simple, transparent and perceived by the customer to be reasonably priced. There is room in the market for services that could federate many small publishers under a single subscription plan, and we expect some cohesion to emerge from the current mess.

Ultimately, though, paywalls will only work if the publishers who deploy them can deliver value their readers can’t get anywhere else. Can the newspaper owners holding the sandbags today honestly say they are doing that?


We’ve noted before the irony that editors who are so committed to hacking through everyone else’s hype roll over when the spin doctor is their own employer. The Orange (TX) Leader upholds that proud tradition in an un-bylined story announcing a reduction in its publishing schedule and the end of home delivery by news carriers.

Combining the Saturday and Sunday editions isn’t a cutback in frequency, but a reader service, said publisher Eric Bauer. “It will be available in the Saturday mail, so people will have more time to enjoy it,” he said. And editor Gabriel Pruitt is almost giddy about cutting frequency to thrice-weekly: “I could not be more proud and excited about how we will better serve this community…Readers can expect more in-depth stories, insightful information, photos and videos.”

The words “reduction,” “cutback” or “cost-cutting” don’t appear anywhere in the story. In fact, there’s no indication that the changes are anything but a reader service. We suspect that if the announcement was coming from the local public works department, it would be handled quite differently.

Print stalwarts will be relieved to hear that at least one major professional group is still committed to the supremacy of ink on dead trees: America’s school administrators. A recent survey conducted by The Haselton Group found that administrators prefer print editions of top trade magazines rather than online editions or e-newsletters from the same publications. Administrators get 45% of their industry-related information from printed trade magazines, “far outweighing the combined total of next three greatest sources: blogs, national newspapers and local newspapers.”

Administrators are joined in their loyalty by the many college journalism programs that are still teaching inverted pyramid style and how their students can find their first job on a daily.



This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 16th, 2011 at 6:47 am and is filed under Fake News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. August 16, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Does anybody remember my suggestion for letting the Post Office handle the distribution of RSS files for publication?

    Seems that its still a viable idea…

    Both organizations can use the help.

    Posted by msbpodcast
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