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Since Postmedia bought the assets of Canwest in July 2010, there has been speculation on how the company would increase subscribers and profits for its newspaper division. The owner of papers like the the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald and the National Post was not immune to the overall decline in paid print subscriptions and fall in advertising revenue. Not expected, was the announcement that two newspapers: The Montreal Gazette and Victoria’s Time Colonist (Publisher’s announcement) would lead the way for the entire group to potentially implement a paywall subscription to access the newspaper’s websites.

Would you Pay $10 per month?

Would you Pay $10 per month?

As noted in previous blogs, the Times UK, New York Times and Wall Street Journal have recently placed either blackout paywalls, or article limits, for their online content – see Online News Paywalls Will Fail : Bye Bye Times UK – and the arguments against paywall success over the medium to long term, still stand. Even the New York Times, which arguably has some of the best staff writers and columnists of any media organization worldwide, does not publish enough unique news or content online to justify the spend. In fact, for the NYT, online viewership dropped 13% immediately when the paywall debuted in April, with an aggregate of 24% drop for the year – and they only gained 100 000 paid subscribers, for a news source in a city/region which covers millions and with a worldwide audience of tens of millions. As most of those were under an introductory 99 cent offer, it is unlikely those numbers will hold when subscribers have to pay the full monthly fee ($10 to $15 monthly). $12 to $18 million annual subscription income likely barely covers operation costs of the subscription system (staff, software,) and certainly cannot offset the loss in advertising revenue as online viewership goes elsewhere.

The Times UK numbers are even worse – its online viewership was 20 million +, dropping to 26,250 monthly after the total blackout paywall came into effect. Note – for all the above mentioned paywall entry newspapers, online access comes free with a print subscription.

With all due respect to the journalists, columnists, editors, photographers and  staff of the Times Colonist – many of whom I know, and admire for their dedication – the paper is not the New York Times. The Times Colonist has struggled for years trying to be too much, for an increasingly distracted and fickle audience. The editorial attempt to cover a region as diverse as South Vancouver Island, with an implied claim to be the paper of record for every location’s news and issues; while also covering international, national, and provincial news – none of which it actually does with the thoroughness, and with the unique content, that justifies paying for the online content. At $9.95 per month for online access, it is an added cost for consumers when everyone is facing higher user fees for internet access – and an added twist, one I find completely nonsensical, charging print subscribers an extra $2.95 per month if they wish to read articles online.

Recognizing that media providers need revenue, charging for content through any medium seems obvious. However, the past few years have clearly demonstrated the trend on how consumers seek, find and share – the latter being the important word – news. A paywall can only work if the content is monopolized, ie: no other provider is offering something similar; if it is timely: is right on top, or even leading the news trends, or is unique. The Times Colonist meets none of those standards. It cannot even claim to be the ‘authority’ as many ‘breaking news’ stories rely on citizen journalists – who are posting anyway on their own platforms – with regional, national and international articles brokered from other sources within the Post Media group, and from outside, like Associated Press. As it is only the Times Colonist and Montreal Gazette who are implementing a paywall, it begs the question what about articles which are cross published within the Postmedia group, a common practice – are they stopping that, which means their overall content provision will be seriously compromised, or will a Times Colonist produced article that appears in the Vancouver Sun require a user charge?

As the news broke about the Postmedia paywall, I posted on Twitter and Facebook, which generated a conversation – some points which are completely relevant, and should be discussed. Charging print subscribers an extra monthly fee for the same content online seems like gouging, and will result in a backlash as @EricPorcher stated:

Alright, call me a dinosaur – I still pay for a printed TC. (Yes, even after a spectacular botch of the Blue Bridge issue.) (Shaking head, partly at myself.) But now I read that the TC wants to charge extra, EVEN FROM PAID SUBSCRIBERS! No chance of that here. I would have thought they would treat subscribers like gold. Apparently not.

and Aaron Hall:

I have bought 4 Times Colonist newspapers in 36 years… I thought I was doing them a favour by sharing their online articles… I guess I don’t need to bother with that any more…

What Aaron highlights is the rapidly changing nature of consuming news. This must scare the Postmedia accountants, but the recent surveys show it is the 35-60 age group, the one which traditionally purchases print editions of newspapers, and the demographic that used to trust an editorial line, which is rapidly moving to a different network, that of social media, especially the live, open and free breaking news provided via Twitter. Combine that movement with the under 35s, who are already oriented to shared content, and the paywall environment for content that is already freely available does not make business sense. Paywalls for any newspaper in the Postmedia group will drive them into a niche audience – heavily reduce the numbers viewing and sharing online content, make their media influence even less than current, and drive advertisers to competitor publications.

A media monopoly does not exist in Victoria BC – there are plenty of other news content providers which cover, adequately or not, local events and issues, and provide the content, for now, on a free basis. The Times Colonist paywall opens the field for the likes of OpenFile – or existing providers like Vibrant Victoria to step up and meet the demand, for free…

Might be interesting to end with a question. If every media outlet charged $10 per month to access content online – and you had $50 per month to spend, what would be your top 5 – would the Times Colonist be included?

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8 Comments

  1. October 30, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    You think Vibrant Victoria will pick up the slack? Did you not notice VV’s articles went from ten a month down to a paltry two a month after they laid me off? The forum and other social media can an interesting source of breaking news, first person accounts and insider information but it does not add up to real reporting.

    Who but a media junkie with too much free time can be bothered slogging through the wasteland of #yyj land? Tell me where this source of alternate local news is? Who has the news on the troubles placing developmentally disabled adults in homes? Who else covered the municipal candidate’s visit to the Leg? Who covered the turnover of Vic PD senior officers?

    Sure, the TC and Monday dropped the ball on the bridge controversy. But you can’t count the fail of the bridge coverage without considering the win of stories like the TC’s justice reform series.

    Radio stations lifting news from the daily paper is one of that medium’s oldest tricks. Black Press covers local news well, with reporters I know and respect. But it’s not a daily, and have you done a word count on their stories? You’re not getting in depth information. CBC is priceless, thanks to that government subsidy. Their coverage is pretty good, if you have the time to listen from 5 am or wade through, select and download the podcasts.

    The TC is flawed, and the paper is declining due to decreasing revenue. Paywalls may fail, the papers themselves may fail but I don’t see a solution on the horizon that delivers quality, accountable news as quickly and efficiently as the daily paper.

    Again, you tend to confuse data with information.

    • October 30, 2011 at 9:52 PM

      Rob

      It will be interesting to see the future of the Times Colonist under new ownership by Glacier. There are dedicated, professional, and very good journalists covering local issues as you mentioned – through Black Press (word count aside), local radio, CBC (which is excellent). I do agree Vibrant Victoria has declining influence, although the potential is still there to create something along the lines of Open File, which was the main point of the post. Experimentation in new models of distributed journalism are showing some that work – The Tyee – others that fail.

      Not certain where you get the idea I’m confused on data vs information. In fact Im trying to complete a post on that very subject. As a fan of open data and Gov 2.0, it is an important, if not vital, factor in policy decisions – Chad Skelton’s data charts via Vancouver Sun are very informative as an example. Data is only one factor: digging around, investigating, is where journalism shines, and that often has little to do with ‘data’.

      While you were writing for VV, I had hope it was taking the leap to become an integral and vital source of local news. The back step is unfortunate.

      Cheers – Mat

      • October 31, 2011 at 9:21 AM

        I really hope VV can regroup but it came down to lack of funds. Writing those articles was rewarding but it was time-consuming work–and they eventually weren’t able to sustain my modest stipend, falling victim to the same woes affecting mainstream media (meagre ad revenue and fear of implementing a paywall [Although my tendency to write meandering run-on sentences didn’t help]).

        Open File is interesting and may be the future but the problem I see will be separating the wheat from the chaff. Although I suppose in time, the good reporting will rise above the ranters, ravers and rumour spreaders. This is what I was getting at when I mentioned data. Random snippets of observations on Twitter must not be mistaken for journalism.

        What I don’t see very often in social media reporting is searching out the other side of the story. For instance, a story on Occupy Victoria would benefit from a quote from a business representative, even if it clashed with the writer’s narrative.

  2. May 27, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    You expect Vibrant Victoria to go out, get the stories and post them for your consumption for free, because so many other news orgs. are already doing it. Have I got that right? You charge people to set-up websites, blogs for them. I can get a free website, a free blog from other sources but I want you to provide me those for free!

    • May 27, 2011 at 9:06 AM

      Apples and oranges – those with the skills and time to create their own website, blog certainly do not require the services of companies like mine. I would guess in some way the same is true of news consumption: if you have the time to peruse many news sources purchasing the TC is not necessary, if not, maybe it is worthwhile. Locally, CBC, CFAX, Black Press, Village 900 and other commercial sources cover local news – augmented by citizen journalists through the likes of Vibrant Victoria and blogs.

  3. May 25, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    So, if I had $50 per month to choose 5 news resources – assuming every publication was charging $10 per month, here is my list.

    BBC
    CBC
    New Yorker
    Globe and Mail
    Guardian UK

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