local media insider

The problem with pay-walls and local media sites


I have spent a lot of time lately thinking and speaking about paid content models. Last week I had an illustrative moment that speaks directly to both the challenge and the opportunity for local media companies in the current ecosystem.

Last Wednesday - after the biggest mid-term elections in a decade - I log-on to my computer here at the office and pull up my local source for news and information. Here in Virginia we had several constitutional amendments on the ballot and in James City County, we also had a bond referendum. Being a concerned citizen and admitted news junkie, not only did I want to know if these measures had passed, I was also interested in the specific breakout of votes for and against by locality.

So here's what I found from my local news source:

A little hard to read here - but note that only one story appears about the election, and that's a 'most popular' article about the easy re-election of a Republican Congressman. Nothing on the local ballot measures. Nothing.

Now, in our tiny town we also have an independently owned and operated radio station. They play 'hand selected' music and broadcast the local CAA college football games (Go Tribe). A couple of years ago, this tiny group also launched a daily online-only 'newspaper' - WYDaily.com. Here's their home page from the same time period yesterday:

Now, let's not pretend this is great design or world-class journalism, but the first three stories here are about the local results from an important national election.

For those of you keeping score that's a 3-1 ratio over the established news source.

What does all this have to do with paywalls you ask? Everything.

If a paper like the Virginia Gazette were to erect a paywall - either to protect print subscriptions or to generate incremental revenue - they would find their traffic simply sliding over to WYDaily.com. And while it doesn't help that the upstart news source actually had better content, the mere fact that there is a second source of hyper-local information should preclude any robust application of a paid content model.

Again, to be clear:

The test here isn't if the content is as good or better than that produced by the newspaper.

It isn't even whether the competitor is making any money at this new endeavor.

The only relevant question is whether consumers have a choice that meets their minimum need - a good enough option.

WYDaily clearly passes that test, and then some.

So the question I would pose to those papers considered a robust paywall model is this - what stops a WYDaily from coming in to your market? or a Patch.com? or an entirely new model for getting news and information?

I had several really terrific conversations last week with smart folks across the country about paid content models. I know I made a lot of people angry (thanks for all your kind emails) and I know I learned some new things (thanks to both Conan Gallaty and Barry Gleichenhaus).

So, while I acknowledge there are smart ways to implement paywalls and not some not so smart ways - I still believe this whole debate is a distraction from the real forces ravaging our industry.

Drop me a line and let me know what you think - would love to hear your take.

Bill Day can be reach at bill@howellcreativegroup.com or 757.253.1542


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  • Bruce Apar

    Couldn't agree more about the "good enough" principle. More than ever before in the news biz -- local or otherwise -- speed is of the essence. Print is imprisoned by time and space; its content must offset that frailty. The web is existential, of the moment; its content must exploit that reality. It's not about what we think regarding the distinction between our rendition of a news story versus a seemingly less experienced or less glamorous competitor. The typical audience isn't reading our content as if sitting on a Pulitzer committee. They just want the facts, ma'am, to paraphrase the iconic Dragnet TV series of the 1960s. All that matters in our business is what the audience thinks, and the audience wants to know there is constantly fresh content that pertains to their daily lives. We can crow all we want about our story being "better edited than theirs." At the end of the news day, the audience doesn't really notice, let alone care.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 Report this