On Paywalls

July 29, 2012 at 6:17pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

It finally happened. After months—nay, years—of speculation, the Journal Star’s website goes behind a paywall today. That’s what editor Dave Bundy tells us, anyway. I haven’t actually been able to get the paywall to kick in for me. Nor, to my knowledge, has anybody else. I’m sure it will turn on soon.

Many media organizations have tried website paywalls. Some of them have fared okay. Many have failed. Some failed spectacularly. Let’s analyze the Journal Star’s approach.

The paywall works on a rolling 30-day basis. Within those thirty days you can view up to ten pieces of “locally produced content”. That excludes ads, contests, and wire content. After you reach your quota you will need to pay up: $1.95 per month for 7-day LJS subscribes and $9.95 monthly for everybody else. Put another way, that’s $0.065 or $0.33 per day. There’s no “day pass” for temporary access.

Since I have not yet been able to trigger the paywall, I don’t yet know what method the LJS will use to block content. Some sites use an “overlay” that’s trivial to circumvent with a little know-how, while others use more advanced approaches. Likewise, some sites track content access with something as basic as a browser cookie (which, again, is trivial to get around), some use IP-based tracking (which can be a real pain in shared-IP environments), and some use far more sophisticated methods of user tracking. We’ll have to exercise a bit of wait-and-see.

Neither is it apparent how one goes about paying for the service. The Journal Star’s subscription page—in addition to being horribly laid out—doesn’t give any hints about paying for online content. (Incidentally, that page also claims that 7-day delivery of the dead tree edition costs $48. Yikes! Who pays that much? I pay $21.)

Once the paywall does kick in, is it worth it? Overall I say yes. But there are asterisks.

Ten bucks a month is nothing for what is clearly the best local news source in Lincoln. Before you get all snarky and mock that sentence, think about what I’ve actually said. I didn’t claim that the LJS is a hotbed of Pulitzer-worthy activity. It’s not. But it’s unquestionably the best we’ve got and, overall, it’s not bad. Outfits like 10/11 and KLIN do a good job here and there, but they just can’t compete with the Journal Star on a broader level. Besides, for all JournalStar.com’s shortcomings, it’s far superior to 1011now.com and klin.com.

Furthermore, 33 cents per day is a small price to pay to have access to good local news and commentary. It’s not zero, but it’s close. And when you consider the local folks you’re keeping employed for that price and the value they bring to the table, it’s worth it. You know as well as I do that the dead tree edition isn’t going to keep the LJS afloat. They have to keep money coming in somehow.

That being said, the Journal Star acquires some obligations with the paywall. Folks paying for website access are going to expect fewer—or at least less obtrusive—ads. I blocked ads on journalstar.com a long time ago and I don’t feel a single pang of regret. Why? Because the Journal Star’s present online advertising approach is flat-out abusive to its readers. The animations, the pop-overs, the fold-downs—they all scream “WE HATE YOU, READER!”. They can kiss AdBlock’s shiny javascript ass until they figure out how to advertise to me in a respectful manner. And yes, I do disable ad blocking on sites that provide me with quality content and that respect me as a customer.

The LJS also needs to drastically improve its mobile browsing experience. The paper’s “mobile-friendly” site is anything but: links are broken; navigation is difficult; much content is completely inaccessible; and so on. And if you try to instead view the regular website, sometimes it respects your preferences and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s maddening. They shouldn’t expect any customers to tolerate that, and certainly not paying ones.

Now what about that $1.95 for 7-day subscribers? I have two reactions. First, it strikes me as very odd that only 7-day subscribers get the discount. I understand why they should get the largest discount, but surely other paying customers deserve a cut as well. Perhaps this is their way of squeezing more customers into 7-day subscriptions. If so, it’s lame.

Second—and more importantly—talk about a slap in the face. The folks at the Journal Star expect me to pay extra to receive the same content, written by the same people, with zero extra work on their part, in a format that allows them to present me with a second set of advertisements, delivered via a system that is orders of magnitude less expensive to operate than the dead tree edition? Ha! Even at less than 7 cents per day that’s an insult of fantastic proportions. Had they tacked on an extra dollar or two to my monthly dead tree edition bill I probably wouldn’t have said anything. But coming out and asking for this money separately ... well, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

Where does that leave us? I’ve reached a few conclusions. First, I have no choice but to pay the two bucks each month. As a local blogger I have to have online access to this material. It’s not optional for me. That being said, expect many more links to other local news websites: 1011now.com, klin.com, and so forth. In addition, when I do link to journalstar.com, expect me to expand my “fair use” quoting of their content so that non-subscribers have some idea what I’m talking about. Presently I often link to articles and assume you’ll go read it; I’ll do much less of that from now on. Hopefully the folks at the LJS understand how my quoting is ultimately good for them, assuming I don’t abuse the practice of course.

Second, I whole-heartedly endorse the Journal Star’s website paywall as a general concept. Mock them all you want (and I do!), but they provide a service that Lincoln must have and that nobody else provides at anywhere near the same level. They need to make money from their products and a website paywall is a reasonable way to do that. The cost for non-subscribers seems reasonable to me, though they may want to investigate a “lite” access program. How does $6 per month for 60 articles (2 per day) sound? Customer research will show whether there’s demand for that sort of thing.

Third, the Journal Star incurs obligations with this act. They must quickly move to improve their online and mobile services to further justify the new costs. Furthermore, they should be transparent with customers, communicating openly and often about what they’re up to. The anticipation of improved and/or expanded services will keep down the complaints about the monthly bill.

This is a big day for local media, with potential implications far beyond what I’ve touched on in this post. Let’s hear your thoughts.

Reply to this post

The Comments

Fletch July 29, 2012 at 9:26pm

I think I agree with most of your assessment. For me, personally, I don’t feel the need to spring for the extra money. Knowing the LJS, I presume they will want to charge me for the online content AND also will soon increase my monthly fee for the fish wrap.

I still believe they are spinning in the wrong direction. They need revenue, so they can hit the readers or they can hit the advertisers. Expanding their advertising base should be the better method. Repeatedly hitting the subscribers (I have paid for the 7-day a week paper version for 23 straight years or so, and not really improving the product in the era of “new media” isn’t going to keep subscribers. They will flee. The more of them flee, the harder is is to convince the advertisers to pay.

They have GOT to figure out the new media (as do others in town like 1011 and KLKN - they both need it moreso than LJS). Simply putting a few 23-year old reporters and columnists on Twitter is not embracing new media. I can get more news than I want, from hundreds of sources, in minutes or seconds. When news breaks here, there’s often a huge lag with the online content. And, generally, the online article is repeated the next morning, verbatim, in the paper.

I don’t see the need to pay twice for the same content. I’m paying them $21 a month for the fish wrap. Let’s split the difference, make my bill $22 and give me all the access to the online stuff with no hassles. No muss, no fuss.

Oh yeah, and I also pay them for recycling, much of which is their paper and ads. Considering I have 2 of their services, I should be comped the online stuff.

Stephen July 30, 2012 at 6:36am

Keep this in mind about online ads- high end news sites like the Guardian in the UK make about 40 cents per user per year for online ads.  I would say that the LJS likely makes a lot less than that…probably only 25 cents per user per year.  I would guess that the LJS makes about 150k per year from online ads.  They only need a few thousand people to sign up to beat this number, so this move is a long time in coming.  Even better for them, newspapers rarely sell more than 50% of online ad space.  The rest gets sold to online ad networks for pennies.  As long as the LJS does not lose more than half their pageviews, they’re only gonna leave a little bit of digital advertising revenue on the table due to the paywall- perhaps as little as a couple thousand bucks.  Or less.  That is now little ad-networks pay for excess ad space.

Stephen July 30, 2012 at 6:38am

And be wary of claims by newspaper companies to make more than the numbers I listed above.  Newspapers nortoriously fudge their dismal digital numbers or “bundle” them with other revenue sources to inflate them.  The Guardian is a trust-worthy number from an excellent, honest paper.  This number also jives with my own personal experience.

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