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Paywalls and newspapers
Apr 09, 2015

Bob Cox, the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, announced that the newspaper will soon be charging readers to access digital content (a cost per article) — what is termed a paywall. Variations of this trend have exploded in recent years across the globe.

When announcing the charge on April 4, Cox wrote in the Free Press that “unique, well-researched, concise content that tells you what is really going on, as opposed to the flow of information and misinformation flowing all around us every day in the new-age world of infinite media ... does not come cheaply. It costs money to have a robust, serious newsroom that provides comprehensive coverage and digs behind appearances to find the truth.”

Daily newspapers compete with the plethora of reports from social media, especially using smartphones and tablets — so-called news that is instantly gratifying, but lacks depth. More often than not, the absence of professionalism — in terms of confirming the sources and the  value of the information — leads to the release of alleged facts that are simply not true.

For example, University of Washington researchers found that misinformation spread widely on Twitter after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. A number of incorrect rumours surfaced that spread rapidly before corrections started appearing. And when they did, corrective tweets were minimal when compared with the volume of tweets that spread incorrect information.

Publishers of dailies believe they have been backed into a corner because of the Internet, which is draining away advertising revenue. The great problem they face is making their online versions profitable, or at the very least not bleed massive amounts of money, which is something that no daily newspaper has achieved to date, despite whatever combination of advertising and pay-for-view models are tried.

“We provide a specialized service — news and information about Winnipeg and Manitoba — that will never attract the hundreds of millions of page views needed to build a revenue base of a substantial news organization ... So we are asking readers to pay online ...,” admitted Cox.

Ken Doctor, a media analyst, speaking at the recent Media Innovation Tour at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, said 52 per cent of U.S. newspapers have paywalls, but the number of people contributing to the revenue is very  small (article by Vidisha Priyanka, Poynter@40).

“We are juiced up on Google and Facebook,” Doctor said, and continue to pay attention to the wrong metrics of page views and unique visitors. He explained that 93 per cent of unique viewers are “fly-by” visitors, who visit a news site just once a month. Only one per cent of the unique viewers are actually paying customers.

His suggestion is that newsrooms build “relationships in the community,” focusing their attention to converting readership from “users — to readers — to subscribers — to members.” This is achieved by offering strong “quality content.” Essentially, a better product for readers. “Newspapers are asking for trouble if they continue the recent trend of offering less product for more money and expecting revenue gains,” he added.

In the Internet Age, there shouldn’t be undo panic in the ranks of publishers, since newspapers have been quite resilient when confronted by new media. 

A number of years ago, I was engaged in some research and by chance came across a newspaper article dating from the mid-1920s which claimed that radio was going to doom newspaper advertising revenue. The article predicted that radio would send newspapers to a pauper’s existence in a few short years since listeners would come to prefer the immediacy of radio news broadcasts.

This article had peaked my curiosity to the extent that I decided to look into what had earlier been said about television and discovered that the new medium was also predicted to end the era of newspapers. 

In both instances, the new technologies didn’t doom newspapers. They did have an impact, but far less than first imagined. 

The Internet is now being said to soon place newspapers on the endangered species list. Also said to be on the endangered list are traditional journalists, since bloggers — despite the fact many sites are the domain of ranters, conspiracy theorists and nutcases — are being touted as their wired-world replacement.

Newspapers such as the Free Press have re-organized front pages to attract the click-on culture of today. On the front  page, there’s no articles. Instead, the page is composed of headlines, pictures and short  blurbs about articles that in the manner of the Internet are meant to tempt potential readers to turn to the inside pages of the newspaper for “more information.” It is a newspaper posing as an Internet website, and another adaptation to today’s brave new world.

Newspapers have their own websites (the REN’s is www.winnipegrealestatenews.com) as an adjunct. The idea is to give readers another method of accessing information and advertisers another portal for their products. 

Some newspapers don’t have a fee, but ask potential readers to fill out a subscription form for free access. That is one way to track exactly how many people use a newspaper’s website to actually read the news and helps weed out those who accidentally hit the site without having any intention of reading, which is a common occurrence in the sometimes haphazard world of Internet usage. 

A survivor that is doing quite well despite the gloom-and-doom predictions is community newspapers. These, mainly weeklies, track individuals from birth to graduation from school to marriage to death. Such newspapers record the passage of time in an individual’s life, reflecting the interests of their readers.

“Even in today’s wired world, with 24-7 access to thousands of information sources, these publications offer news, advertisements and commentary that are meaningful and relevant to Manitobans,” observed NDP MLA Eric Robertson a couple of years ago.“Today’s newspapers, like those of earlier times, publish editorials and letters that reflect opinions of editors, community leaders and ordinary citizens. Announcements and advertisements feature the products and services of the local business sector.”

Winnipeg’s first newspaper, The Nor’Wester, was founded on December 29, 1859: “As the first newspaper established in this territory, it is bound, perhaps, by regard to courtesy, if not interest, to set before the community ... the principles by which it will be guided in its career. We come here ‘strangers in a strange land’ ... we scatter it broadcast among those who though personally strangers are already friends ...” 

Perhaps the above are the best ways to explain the survival of newspapers in the face of so-called threats to their existence — they remain “meaningful and relevant” and a “friend” to the community. That is why newspapers have survived the advent of numerous technologies said by some to have the wherewithal to replace them.