Tuesday, November 24, 2009

to the Bloomington Herald-Times: drop the paywall. now.

My local paper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, has, if you can believe it, instituted a paywall.

This news is not particularly new, as the paywall was erected back in 2003. In a recent interview with the Guardian (which is, by the way, committed to keeping its web content available for free), the Herald-Times' publisher, Mayer Maloney, said this:

"When we changed to a pay website, in what might be called the dark days of the paid content debate, I kind of expected the earth to open up and the fires of hell to consume us.... We had some complaints, we still do, but by and large, I think folks expect to pay for stuff they want to consume and I don't see why papers have been giving away their journalism for free."

I'll get to why papers have been giving away their journalism for free in a second. First, though, I want to point to an enormous gaffe by Herald-Times staff: using the official Herald-Times Twitter account to link to content that only subscribers can access. Here's a recent snippet from the paper's Twitter feed:

If you want to find out more about the alleged sexual assault, if you want to learn about the robbery of the dead man's house, if you want to learn about the bank robbery--in other words, if you're interested in engaging with your local news--you can head over to the Herald Times website, where you'll see a page like this:

Using Twitter--a platform whose existence relies on members' goodwill toward each other, on their willingness to serve as intelligent filters for each other--to link to content people have to pay for is what we like to call "spam." It's not appropriate. It's not appreciated. And it's not okay. The decision not to link directly to news stories is presumably the Herald-Times' strategy for making it look like they're not spamming their followers, but it doesn't work. "Woman reports sexual assault after separating from her family at the Red Lot to attend IU/PU game"? You bet I'm going to try to find out more. The very effort to offer 140-character mini-headlines is an attempt to make Twitter users try to find out more. And when they do, they smack up against the paywall.

So my first request to the Herald-Times is this: Be nice or leave. Either stop spamming us, or lock your Twitter account to all but paid subscribers to the paper. Twitter is not the place to hustle subscriptions.

My second request is this: Tear down the goddamned paywall. The Herald-Times is, for all intents and purposes, the only local newsdaily (though I'll offer alternative news sources below). This means it certainly can but absolutely should not erect a paywall for web content. The need to make local news available for free becomes more urgent when you consider the demographics of Bloomington. It's the home of Indiana University, a college town whose median age is 23 (.pdf). Publisher Maloney considers the paywall a roaring success, adding in the abovementioned Guardian article that
"The simple question is whether you're selling something that people want to buy. I think it's foolish to give away to one group what you're charging another group for."

You know what else is foolish? Substituting long-term survival with short-term cash. Sure, the paywall has worked for the last five years. And in that time, how many young people, potential lifelong subscribers to local newspapers, have been denied the chance to see the value of connecting with community events? How many people have formed a notion of civic engagement that completely excludes the role of local news?

Sure, the cost of subscription is fairly low--just $5.95 a month. But I won't pay it, and thousands of young people won't pay it either. What they may do is pick up one of the free newspapers made available on campus: The New York Times or USA Today, both of which also offer free online content. (In case you missed it, USA Today recently announced a pilot program in which an e-edition of the paper will be made available for free to university populations, and Indiana University is one participant in this pilot.) Though students don't pay each time they grab a 'free' paper, the service is not free. To cover the cost of the NYTimes, all students have a small fee tacked on to their bill--as near as I can tell, it's somewhere around $1.25 per semester, though I'll double-check on that and get back to you. The USA Today program is free for now, with future conversations about pay structures planned after the pilot ends.

Just for the record, I don't consider this fee structure to be analogous to a paywall. The cost is low, largely invisible, and distributed across all members of the university community. In my view this would be, if the Herald-Times wanted to know, a legitimate way to approach circulating their content to university students.

But look: we need to think, and think hard, about strategies for maintaining cultural interest in high-quality reporting, at the local, state, national, and international level. We want--we need--to cultivate in our young people a deep investment in news so that the news, in whatever form it ends up adopting once newspapers die off, carries and is carried by its community. This means dropping down anything that acts as a barrier between the community and its news, and this means making web content--which is, let's face it, the content that young people are more likely to access--available for free. Paywalls solve the problem for now, but they don't solve the problem for later.

What say you, @theheraldtimes?

coda: some Bloomington news alternatives
The Bloomington Alternative: http://www.bloomingtonalternative.com/
The Indiana Daily Student (Indiana University's student-run newspaper): http://www.idsnews.com/news/headline.aspx
WFIU, Bloomington's Public Radio station: http://indianapublicmedia.org/radio/
Indiana Public Media news: http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/


Christian Briggs said...

In the short-term, it would be interesting to know the percentage of the HT's subscribers are students. Probably not high - in which case they are missing out on free eyeballs and future subscribers. I doubt it would be difficult to make it free for students. There have been other web sites outside of the university who have integrated their authentication with the University system.

Ironicus Maximus said...

This is a toughy. On the one hand, reporters like to get paid for their work, so the paper needs to get money from some place to give to them, and since no one is buying dead tree versions of papers anymore, where that money comes from has become somewhat, well problematical.

On the other hand, pay walls don't work because they essentially take the paper out of play reporting on a particular story and leave the field to the competition.

Case in point, we went looking for your sexual assault story and found it free after oh, ten seconds:

So the paper succeeded in shooting itself in the foot.

Walls work both ways you know.

Oh, the Twitter thing? That's bogus. They need to have their account canceled for crap like that.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Christian & Ironicus,
This issue is perhaps the toughest one for me, the one I struggle with the most as simultaneously a fan of the social revolution and a former newspaper reporter whose paper folded because of declining ad revenues. I'm also an enormous fan of civic engagement in all forms, and I believe we must foster this through connection with local issues and local politics along with dispersed, virtual, or anyway nonlocal issues and needs.

But even given the dire state of print media, passing the extra cost to the consumer is most decidedly not the solution--at least, not the long-term solution. You do that long enough and you niche yourself right out of a market.


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