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.
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?