The Columbia Missourian just announced that starting Monday, it will charge for online access. But not for all of its content! No, the Missourian will only charge for news content that has had a chance to ripen on the website for a full day.
The first 24 hours after a piece of content is published (you know, the time frame in which people are actually discussing and sharing that content), it will be free for anyone to see, but after the 24-hour mark, it’s for members only. What?!
Online paywalls are not new. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and a host of other news organizations have implemented them in the last couple years to fill the gaping hole in their balance sheets that was once filled with advertising and subscription revenue. We have even reported on the Columbia Tribune‘s successful efforts with its paywall.
But the Missourian‘s paywall is different from any of theirs, in a couple of important ways. The first is that the Missourian will let you access its valuable content for the first 24 hours after a story is published, and then charge for access after that. The entire purpose of the news business is to disseminate accurate information as quickly as possible to as many people as possible in as many formats as possible. News is most valuable when it is, well, new.
Old news is not particularly helpful, and that is the only news content the Missourian is planning to charge for with its online access. Here is the way Missourian Executive Editor Tom Warhover puts it in Sunday’s Dear Reader Column:
Seems counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t news most valuable when it’s most timely?
Tasaka says that most news when first published can be found in lots of places. It would be hard to escape the news about the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin on the day it happened. Here in Columbia, I can find out what happened at a City Council meeting through multiple sources, including Facebook.
Where the real value lies, Tasaka says, is in the aggregate: When discrete events and nuggets of news create a more coherent story.
A 400-word article can’t possibly provide all the context and background to an issue. That’s why the Web is so great; I can check out past articles or other pieces of information to get a fuller picture.
There’s value — not for everyone, perhaps, but for many — in being able to access all the information. There’s value in unlimited access to the Missourian archives. There’s value in apps designed for tablets and smart phones.
The problem with this logic is that, yes, news content is everywhere in Columbia. The Missourian‘s content is in no way distinct from other news outlets in town, or uniquely high-quality. It’s just not. Columbia is a saturated media market with more newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations than any town in America of its size. The most successful paywalls have been at news organizations whose content fill a narrow niche (Politico Pro, Bloomberg, Financial Times) or is extremely high-quality (The New York Times).
The Missourian‘s content is not uniquely high-quality since it is produced by (very talented, good-looking) journalism students, who are by definition working hard to improve their craft. Don’t get us wrong, the Missourian produces some high-quality journalism, but not so good as to replace the Trib entirely or warrant online membership.
And that’s fine! JSB is produced by journalism students and recent graduates, too, and always will be, but the difference is that we will never charge you for access to this site. Sure, we might shake a tin can at you and ask you to donate to us via our PayPal button on the right side of each page (PLEASE DO IT, WE ARE BROKE AS $#!%), but we are never going to charge for this site because the quality and quantity of our content simply don’t justify it.
Another major problem with the Missourian‘s plan is the type of news consumer it thinks will support the paper’s business model almost certainly does not exist in numbers large enough to contribute anything meaningful to the paper’s bottom line. The Missourian‘s most fervent and devoted fans are the ones who show up on the site minutes or hours after a news story breaks. Those news consumers who go straight to the Missourian when a major story breaks are the ones who are most likely to pay for online access, not the folks who come by days, weeks or months later.
The reason is that the majority of folks who stumble onto a news story long after it is published are drive-by traffic brought to the site through search engine. Those people find the site only thanks to Google, stay on the site for a few seconds (or a minute, if you’re lucky), and leave just as quickly, never to darken the Missourian‘s door step again.
The folks at the Missourian know this. Even its public web analytics data shows that about 75 percent of its monthly visitors only visit the site once, and that may be their only time ever on the site.
Look: experimentation is good. It’s the only thing that will save this floundering journalism business. But don’t waste time on experimentation that is doomed to failure from the outset. By all means, go ahead with this experiment and charge for online access to old news. Just don’t be surprised when it doesn’t work. And please don’t use this almost certain failure as a reason to rethink future bold innovations and experimentation.
Disagree with my take? Meet me in the comments and we can discuss.