Paywall content: Is it worth paying for?

The other day, I was following the tweets of a newspaper reporter who was reporting on a city council meeting. I wasn’t following the action on purpose; the tweets just came fast and furious in my stream. The council was arguing, and he recorded it well. So, I made a note to myself to read his story when it was filed. (I’m wonky in that way.) So far, so good.

A few hours later, a Google Alert in my email pointed me to his story. It was a good story and satisfied me. I doubt it satisfied the powers to be at the paper, though. It came via, not from (I never got a Google Alert about the story on the News & Record’s website.)

If I were thinking about erecting a paywall, as the News & Record has done, I would test the market. (And perhaps the paper has done it.) A few things I’d do:

*Set up a variety of Google Alerts for the topics you cover. In this case, “Greensboro City Council” and “Guilford schools” and “UNCG” and “A&T” and the like. See who is on the web covering the same issues you are. Compare what they do with what you’re doing. With ice in your veins, decide whether a reader needs your story if they can read the other.

*Cross tab what you write about with the TV stations and other news media. If the police chief holds a news conference about say, what to do if you see a child locked in a car, it’s pretty likely at least one other news outlet will cover it, too. Again, does a reader need your version if TV’s version is good enough? *Each day, Google your primary content to find if others have scraped it off your site or have imitated it or if you can find similar stories elsewhere.

Then, once you have that data, use it to determine what you have to offer potential subscribers that is relevant, unique and worth paying for. Stating the obvious, if I can find most of what I need to know without any trouble and without any cost, why would I pay to get into your site?

Be careful, though, in deciding what you have that is worth paying for. Don’t be easy on yourself: Is it a strong editorial voice? I can get a lot of those elsewhere. Is it indepth college sports coverage? I can get a lot of that elsewhere. Is it broad entertainment news? Doesn’t the free weekly tab cover that? Is it intensely local news and information? Great — but it needs to be intensely local news and information I care about. If, for instance, it’s high school sports — you’ve lost me.

Be ruthless with yourself. Chances are the exercise will not only give you pause about what you’re offering online, it will cause you to re-evaluate what you write about in the first place. My advice is to put the emphasis on unique and relevant.

Robert G. Picard raises the ante with a story of his own about trying to find original reporting, but only finding journalists building on each other. “As this case shows, they are doing nothing new, adding nothing or little, and essentially copying each other and themselves. This gives readers nothing they cannot get elsewhere, so how can they expect people to see it as valuable.

“This value creation deficit is especially a challenge if news organizations want readers to pay for journalism, but it is increasingly a problem even in asking them to spend time reading free content.”

The only reading guide you need*

* Well, in truth, that I need


John Kroll published his list of the 100 books every journalist must read. It’s an outstanding list, filled with books of intelligence, insight and wonder, and books that I will never read, must or not.

I have only two book titles on my must read list. Let’s face it — only the most devoted journalists will read 100 books about the craft they practice every day. Time, interest and life get in the way. My reading list should appeal to those of us with the shorter attention spans.

The books:

* Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” – It should be read and reread by every journalist because it will make you a better writer. And it foretells the Internet’s fascination with lists. From the Wikipedia entry: It “comprising eight ‘elementary rules of usage’, ten ‘elementary principles of composition’, ‘a few matters of form’, a list of forty-nine ‘words and expressions commonly misused’, and a list of fifty-seven ‘words often misspelled’.”

* Roy Peter Clark’s  “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” —  Again, short. Again, a list. And again, every single tool in Clark’s toolkit fits a need. Study them, experiment with them, and they will improve your work.

Both provide advice to improve the journalist’s skills. But I have other non-books on my every-journalist-should-read list. These are more about expanding your knowledge and your thinking.

* Create a strong Twitter list full of journalists who are trailblazing, trying to find a journalistic future. People such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Stacy Kramer, Clay Shirky, Steve Buttry, Dan Kennedy, Mindy McAdams, Dave Winer, Mathew Ingram. And, of course, John Kroll. Here’s a list I created a few years ago, but it’s inadequate. Most of them have equally valuable blogs. Creating a list of journalists and thinkers – people that you want to have in your stream to challenge you when you need challenging — keeps you ahead of the game where the rules change quickly.

* Create an RSS feed that delivers to you the websites you like. I have many sites on my reader, but on my “must” list — primarily for their range — are Mashable, Gigaom, Nieman Journalism Lab and Mediagazer. I mention these because they’re filled with links to interesting stories, some of which may interest you and others won’t. But it’s about choice. And these links will send you in unexpected directions so that you can discover stories and information that you didn’t know that you wanted to know. (Sorta like the serendipity of turning a newspaper page.)

* Sign up for the American Press Institute’s daily email newsletter. Compiled by Millie Tran, it’s filled with links to important developments in journalism and media. Need a quick guide to what’s happening and what thought leaders are writing before you leave in the morning? (The answer is yes.) This is that.

This is a terribly incomplete list. I’m sure I’ve left out some of my favorites. It’s intended as a beginning. It may seem like a lot, but it’s not difficult to manage, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to spend as much or as little time as you have. I have many more sites I like to visit because I personally like the writer or his or her style. You can find your own. Like Kroll, I welcome additions.

And now, without all those must-read books on journalism to read, you can read books of fiction or history or political science or religion and truly expand your horizons.

Update: Lex adds “The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques.”

Sunday sampler

First, the front-page story count:

Four stories: Durham

Three stories: Lenoir, Winston-Salem and Sanford. Charlotte and Raleigh had three – one was a wire story. Wilmington had three – two were wire stories. Asheville had three – two were on the same topic.

Two stories: Gaston, Greensboro, High Point, Monroe

One story: Hickory, Shelby

Greensboro — Say you’re a county and you have a population that has a need for treatment of drug addiction. Say that the best treatment is at least 30 days in rehab. So, do you consider cutting the number of people you treat and reducing the number of days of treatment to 14? Most people would say no. But if you can save big money? Well…The News & Record brings us up to date with the future of substance addiction treatment in Guilford County.

Raleigh– Along similar lines, Wake County got out of the business of providing mental health services to county residents, believing private companies could serve them better and more efficiently. You know how this is going to turn out. The News & Observer: “As a result of errors and miscommunication, some people with mental illnesses or disabilities arrested for nonviolent offenses have been jailed for months in Wake County, waiting for court-ordered psychological evaluations that might help set them free – and lead to better treatment. The evaluations are supposed to take seven days.”

Fayetteville — I applaud the Observer for going to Oklahoma in pursuit of a story. Fewer and fewer papers do that kind of traveling when it doesn’t involve a sports team. The Observer went to Tulsa as part of its year-long effort to illuminate the problems of and possible solutions to crime. In this installment, the story is about an innovative pre-school program that is helping children graduate.

Paying for the paywall at the News & Record


My hometown newspaper and former employer, the News & Record, is introducing a paywall. Ever since Warren Buffett bought the paper, we knew it was coming. I don’t like it. I think it encourages people to avoid the paper — print and digital — altogether, and I hate that many editors are reduced to shilling for something most don’t actually believe benefits the public. (To his credit, Jeff is pretty direct in his message to readers.)

But I’ve written about my objections to paywalls  enough.

The surprising thing to me – and which I believe is unusual for newspaper paywalls – is that the N&R is charging more for a digital subscription than for a print subscription.

Currently, a 7-day, 52-week subscription costs $187.12. According to an ad in the newspaper today, the digital subscription is $215.40. (FYI, the subscription page on the website hasn’t been updated, at least that I can find.)

In comparison, the News & Observer charges $390 for a year’s print subscription, and only $69.95 for a digital subscription. The Star News in Wilmington charges $218.40 for the print edition, and $131.40 for a digital subscription.

But the N&R is cutting the other way. Editor/Publisher Jeff Gauger explains: “The reason for that variance? A print subscription permits us to subsidize the cost of content by providing access to your home or business for preprinted advertising circulars. A digital-only subscription lacks that advertising subsidy.”

Put aside the idea that many of us might pay not to get the preprints. The newspaper must weigh the costs of non-delivery against the potential loss of preprint revenue. Sending people to a website costs much less than delivering a newspaper to homes. No paper cost, no delivery cost, less production cost. But preprint advertisers pay for delivery to a certain number of homes. They don’t know how many people look at the ads vs. those who pull them from the paper and send them straight to the recycle bin. The advertiser can judge the effectiveness of the ads by the number of people who buy its product.

Here’s the thing: People who subscribe to the print paper, as I do, get digital access free. That means that it’s cheaper to get the paper and digital, than just to get digital.

Is the pricing structured to encourage digital users to subscribe to the paper? After all, the more subscribers a paper has, the more it can charge advertisers. (Despite what many readers think, advertising pays the bulk of the cost of a newspaper, not subscription fees.) I doubt this is the actual intent, but it does make some perverse sense to the consumer. Unless you can get what you need from the website from its 20 free articles per month.

None of this changes my mind that paywalls are a short-term fix and, without valuable new content, a long-term failure. But it will be interesting to watch.

Update: After mentioning this on Twitter, several people chimed in to say their local papers charge more for digital than print. Several also said it makes sense to try to drive people back to print, even if they don’t want it. Me, I get why they’re doing it; I just don’t think it’ll work.

So, charging more for the web to encourage people to subscribe to the paper even though they don’t want the paper is a viable strategy? I’m not convinced. Imagine this: A person dropped the newspaper subscription because he could read what he wanted from the paper’s website. Now, he can subscribe to the newspaper again to read the paper AND the website…it’ll just cost him nearly $200. My bet is that he’s going to read his 20 free articles and go elsewhere. Or maybe that’s just what I’ve done at every newspaper where I’ve hit a paywall.

Update II: More from Newspaper Next and Nieman Journalism Lab.


Sunday sampler

Where we are on front page stories.

4 stories on the front — Durham

3 stories — Greensboro, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Lenoir, Monroe, Raleigh (one wire); Fayetteville (one wire); Wilmington (two wire).

2 stories — Asheville, High Point, Hickory, Gaston

1 story — Shelby

Charlotte– As the nation deals with the influx of children from south of the border, the Observer writes of a 9-year-old from Honduras. The story puts a human face on the numbers.  “She arrived in Charlotte last month to be reunited with her mother, after a trek from Honduras that had her hiking for days, forging rivers and clinging to the tops of freight trains. She was accompanied by her grandmother, a woman in her 50s who is being held in a Texas detention facility.”

Raleigh — Two stories in the News & Observer. One about environmental tests of water in streams near the 8-acre cleanup site where Ward Transformer dumped toxic PCPs years ago. As the story says, don’t eat the fish. The second is about sexual abuse in the 1970s at Carolina Friends school in Durham. The N&O’s story is an excellent write-through of the revelations that came out last month.

Greensboro – Jim Melvin, former mayor, former head of a local S&L and now head of a charitable foundation that invests in Greensboro, is known as Mr. Greensboro even as he hasn’t held public office in 30+ years. He is disliked by many for politics long in the past. I’ve always liked him for his passion and directness. N&R columnist Jeri Rowe shows a side of Melvin rarely seen — talking about his father’s murder.


Sunday sampler

A little different this week.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the shrinking front page. Fewer stories…fewer reasons to pick up the paper. Here is an update, starting at the top…or bottom, depending on your perspective:

* Four local stories on the front page: Durham

* Four stories on the front: Wilmington, but two are wire stories and the other two are on the same topic.

* Three local stories: Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Sanford

* Three stories: Raleigh and Fayetteville (one wire on each)

* Two local stories: Greensboro, Gaston, High Point, Asheville, Hickory, Monroe.

* One local story: Shelby

Perhaps coincidentally, I found only two that grabbed my attention this morning.

Charlotte — Remember the story about Subway rolls containing yoga mat material? I didn’t know it was a Charlotte activist — the Observer’s headline refers to her as the “food babe,” which is apparently what she calls herself — who said it.  The Observer investigates and finds some of her claims suspicious, unfounded or misleading. Fascinating piece.

Fayetteville– As the legislature argues in Raleigh over the budget, state agencies are winging it…or, in some cases, not. The Observer focuses on the effect on state schools and universities. Given my current situation, it’s personal. “Meanwhile, the university needs to hire adjunct faculty and others to provide enough class sections for students scheduled to graduate in the next two semesters, yet it doesn’t know if it can, Anderson said. A section typically has 30 to 35 students. If no decision is made soon, Anderson will have to proceed.

“‘You end up not offering those sections. That’s all you can do,” he said. “And then, students will then start requesting to try to get into sections that are closed, which gluts those sections. So it’s always a domino effect.’”


Why add stress to your audience?

What if you knew that one of the major story lines in your paper added to the daily stress of your readership? Would you react to that? Would you figure out how to help your readers process that storyline differently?

What if you knew that “news” in general, added to the stress of your viewership? Would it change your news judgment on what and how you broadcast?

The latest report, not on news per se, but on American stress: “Americans cited “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.”

Think about that for a moment: “The most frequent daily stressor on their lives.”

This is my hometown newspaper, but on any day, you can find newspaper front pages similar to this across the country.

No. 2 on the list was “Watching the news.”

What does this mean for news organizations? A great deal, but my guess is that few will give the survey a second thought. They have enough surveys and enough problems. After all, news consumption is up, even as people actually paying for newspapers has declined for years and the audience for broadcast news is sinking.

But it’s a huge opportunity for those that want to think seriously about their future. Yes, the news is stressful, but your reporting of it doesn’t always have to be. Go out and talk to people and listen to what they tell you. Here is a short version of what I’d say:

* Give less about political bickering. Fights between politicians create a great deal of smoke but little fire. This story about an ethics accusation that is quickly disproved is a good example. Most people don’t care about the kind of middle-school fighting that makes up today’s politics. I know it’s election time and these stories happen. But understand that people are angry at politicians and government. Figure out how your coverage acknowledges and adapts to that.

* Give me less about government operations that have little impact on people. Rather, present government stories from the vantage of how actions affect real people, rather than politicians.

* I know better than to suggest TV turn down political ad money. But you must realize that people hate attack ads. They even make me – a political junkie – change the channel. (This is my favorite: “People don’t like political ads.”) I don’t know how you alleviate that — would fact-checking them hurt your bottom line? — but I’d get your experts working on it.

* The axiom of “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” may work to increase viewership, but it is a dereliction of your community responsibility. This fear-mongering is wrong on every psychological level. And there is data for that and the unnecessary stress it puts in viewers’ minds. Most of us are not consumed by murder or break-ins or traffic fatalities. Few of your viewers know the victims. What is the public service value you’re offering?

* Give me more of two things: investigative reporting and stories of success.

Investigative reporting implies negative reporting about government. But focusing on issues that matter to your readers and viewers is the key, which leads back to asking them. For me, I’d say cut through the bullshit and tell me what’s what. If a politician speaks political double-speak — and watch “House of Cards” for what that is — don’t quote them or call them on it.

Stories of success – last year I called the good news stories — inform and reflect the community more than political stories or crime stories. They reduce stress in people’s lives, and they get talked about.

Plotting your future in this news world is tough. What we know is that ignoring customers, doing little different and playing it safe isn’t the correct path.

Paying for journalism: Community-based crowdfunding

Corey Hutchins at CJR does a good job rounding up the issues, pro and con, surrounding the News & Record’s agreement for arts coverage with ArtsGreensboro. I won’t repeat them.

But because we’re talking about experimenting with new business models for reporting information, let’s take it a step further: community-based crowdfunding of coverage topics.

Steve Buttry suggested it on Facebook last week when he read of the N&R’s arrangement. The idea is simple to articulate, and, certainly, not so simple to execute. But Tim Howard didn’t become the most popular man in America because his role was simple. Rather than contracting with a specific organization or business for coverage, the paper would ask the community what additional coverage it wants and solicit contributions to fund that coverage.

More coverage of UNC sports? Or, in Greensboro, more coverage of A&T sports? More coverage of nightlife? More coverage of the quality of schools. Investigative reporting of governmental practices. The possibilities are endless. When I was at the News & Record and we canceled our New York Times subscriptions, readers called me and offered to pay more so that we would publish Tom Friedman. That’s how devoted readers are to certain topics.

Aside from the financial reward, there are two primary benefits to this method:

First, it permits the community of readers to weigh in on what it wants. As I said earlier, I’m sure that the News & Record readers appreciate additional coverage of the arts, but I doubt it is in the top 5 or even 10 areas desired. My memory of our surveys indicated that education and local government coverage were highly rated. But I am also aware that surveys lie. So, ask readers straight up — in person, in print and online. My observation is that they will tell you straight up, if you just ask. And asking brings engagement and buy-in, both qualities news organizations want.

Second, it spreads the funding responsibility among the entire community of readers. Everyone has the opportunity to give money to supplement a topic of interest. This avoids the sense that one major organization or business is underwriting the coverage. For instance, neither the Sierra Club nor Duke Energy should be sponsoring environmental coverage. But if the entire community is contributing to coverage, there is no “funding overlord.” It seems fairer and less likely to draw accusations of favoritism or bias.

The other advantage in the funding model is that you have less worry about the major underwriter withdrawing. If, after a year, ArtsGreensboro decides the investment isn’t worth it, will the paper go back to its former arts coverage? Readers won’t like that. Under the community-based model, the funding is more diverse.

The obvious hurdle is how to make it work: Will you get enough money? Who will do the additional reporting? How will you avoid the complaints from those who want you to report on their pet areas and reflect their biases? How do you monitor who is donating? Should you monitor who is donating?

Smart people in newsrooms and in the community can answer these questions. (They aren’t really that difficult to answer. Executing them may be.)

Kickstarter has shown that people will invest in good ideas without expectation of a direct payback. “Backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not to profit financially.”  Other sites — the CJR article links to some — use non-traditional funding models. But neither I nor Steve are familiar with any newspapers that have attempted community-based crowdfunding.

An offshoot could be that as newspapers erect paywalls, they could crowdfund additional content behind that paywall to entice people to pay for the subscription. Or, if the interest is high enough, they could create a pay-only site on the topic and let contributors have access.

Experimentation by journalistic organizations is vital, and newspapers don’t experiment enough. For that, I applaud the News & Record. So, let’s push the experimentation even further.

What is there to lose in giving it a shot? Not much other than time, as far as I can see. So, in the spirit of innovative experimentation, will someone please try it?


The disappearing front page story


Not long ago, it was normal for North Carolina newspapers to publish five stories on their front pages. No longer. Two or three is closer to the norm, at least with the larger papers.

On Sunday — the biggest circulation and advertising day of the week — the two largest papers in the state, the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer, had three stories. The Winston-Salem Journal also had three. The News & Record in Greensboro, the Fayetteville Observer, the High Point Enterprise, the Gaston Gazette and the Asheville Citizen Times had two.


Of the state’s larger newspapers, the Star News in Wilmington had four stories on its front page, but two of the stories were related.

The Hickory Daily Record only has one story on the front, with a dizzying number of promos and ads.


When I was an editor, I preferred to have four stories on the Sunday front page, much to the occasional dismay of our design director. But I was a word guy and wanted to give readers as much choice as possible. If a story on schools didn’t interest them, perhaps a story on environment or crime or politics would. I also knew that the front page was the most read page in the paper, with declining readership for inside pages or other section fronts.

So what’s happening?

I don’t know, but here is what I think:

Front pages with large dramatic artwork draw the eye. If the primary story the art is illustrating is compelling, it makes the newspaper feel relevant and important. And people like to see strong photography; it catches the eye and evokes emotion, whether it is an embracing couple, an armful of puppies or a teenager pulling a handgun from his pants.

And maybe it will inspire a passerby to pull shell out a couple bucks — or eight quarters if he or she has them — to buy a paper at the box. Impulse buys are a good thing.

Andy Bechtel in the comments correctly points out that pages are smaller, making it more difficult to give five stories decent display on the front. (Andy’s blog.)

To me, it also says a few other things:

Fewer stories. Duh. For instance, my hometown newspaper had four locally produced news stories in Sunday’s paper — two on the front page and two in the local section. Perhaps it’s the result of fewer reporters. Perhaps it’s intentional. Regardless, it gives readers — or at least me — less to read and engage with. (I don’t know about the other papers around the state. Perhaps they backloaded the rest of their local stories.)

Ads and promos have claimed a greater front page presence. Some are done well, inviting readers to other sections of the paper. Others are so packed, the page comes across like a child’s messy room.

A front page with fewer stories demands that those stories by damn good. When there are only two stories, it’s tough to coast. Just as the dominant artwork on the page must be compelling, the accompanying story has to back it up. If it’s not, the reader moves on…but to what? There are only one or two other choices. And do you really want a wire story that was on the Saturday 6 o’clock news on the page, or seen on the web or Twitter or Facebook or an email alert?

What’s my point? Only one that every journalist and every reader share: make the front page the most interesting, exciting and relevant as possible. If you limit the choices on the page, then make the ones out there exceptional, particularly on the biggest circulation day of the week. By all means, play a big story big. And if you have one every Sunday, good. But if you don’t — and many don’t — give us more choice.

(Front page images courtesy of the Newseum.)

Sunday sampler

Asheville — The Citizen Times continues its series on homelessness. Right now, the home page has the paper’s story from last Sunday. Here is a copy of today’s front page. Too bad, too, because based on the story that starts on the front, this looks like another good one. I admit to being a sucker for stories about children in danger.

Charlotte — Having just returned from a trip up I-95 and spending about $20 on tolls, I hate tolls. Yet, I also wondered why we don’t have a toll gate at the Virginia state line and the South Carolina state line. So I read with interest the Observer’s story about the problems lurking with the I-77 toll road. And that’s why I’d put one each at the state lines to charge people going through the state.

Fayetteville — Teenagers and guns. The Observer continues its year-long series on crime. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been 34 homicides in Fayetteville. Seventeen of the people charged in those killings were young – between 14 and 26. Of those 17, all but one is black….Generally, Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons said, they are young black men who were raised by a single parent and dropped out of high school. They grew up watching violence on television and don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions until it is too late.

Greensboro — Who knew that churches encourage you to be online tweeting and Facebooking during the church service?

Raleigh — The N&O profiles the FBI agent who worked N.C. corruption cases; he’s been busy. It’s a fascinating piece about a man who seeks the truth, but it’s also a reminder of all the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in N.C. Imagine the ones  NOT caught.

Wilmington — My favorite story of the week, shining a light in dark corners. The Star News reports on a businessman who sets up a non-profit to create charter schools, gets millions from the state and then contracts out many of the school services to the private companies he owns. Oh, and executives at the private companies say they don’t have to provide any information about the services they provide.