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Considering WCPO's Paywall

By Ben L. Kaufman · February 19th, 2014 · On Second Thought
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WCPO.com installed its promised paywall for some online stories. First month, it’s only a penny. An initial annual fee is discounted.

The only question is, “Is it worth it?”

And even if it is, will readers pay for what was free?

When it announced the plan, owner Scripps said WCPO.com would be the first TV station nationally to charge readers for its separate online reporting. 

It’s a calculated risk, made more likely to succeed by the historic Scripps culture of respect for news and the journalists who are doing the online reporting, writing and editing. Many are friends and former colleagues and competitors. 

More important, they’re print veterans, not fungible youngsters pausing hopefully in front of Cincinnati TV cameras en route to larger markets.  

Broadcast/cable competitors will be watching. Cincinnati-based Scripps is a national media presence. Whether other stations do the same will be interesting. 

I liked the enterprise stories when they were free but I haven’t bought a WCPO.com subscription. No surprise. I haven’t bought subscriptions when other websites put up paywalls; I live and work comfortably without them as I’m surrounded by myriad online sources. 

There is one exception. It’s the stupid Enquirer paywall blocking access to archived stories older than a week. I’m sorry I can’t use it but I’m too angry to pay. 

So I haven’t made up my mind about the WCPO.com paywall. My decision probably will reflect the adequacy of local news from CityBeat, WVXU-FM, the Enquirer and other Cincinnati sources. If I’m frustrated by not being able to read important enterprise stories behind WCPO.com’s paywall, I might just fork out the annual subscription. 

I’m a news junkie. In addition to two dailies and lots of magazines delivered at home, I look at a dozen sites every day. Many are free. Some allow a few free stories a month; I ration those. In every case, content is king. Breaching paywalls on every site I want to read would be insanely expensive. 

When Internet competitors emerged years ago, print media initially competed by putting their content online free.

There was vigorous debate over this: Would subscribers quit paying and turn to free content? Some did. Circulation and ad revenue fell. 

Surviving publishers had to figure out when and how to charge online readers for what they’d learned to enjoy for nothing. 

Some attempts failed, most visibly, at The New York Times. It briefly put top columnists behind a paywall. That pissed readers off. Management beat a hasty retreat and came back with what appears to be a popular approach: some free, some by subscription. That’s what WCPO.com does. 

The Enquirer is taking a similar approach: some free, some by subscription. The paper is growing, especially its local reporting. My inference is that the combination is working profitably. (The Times and Enquirer give online access to home delivery customers whose subscriptions comprise enough days.)

Even though WCPO.com is new, recent national research suggests Scripps is on to something good. Felix Gillette at Bloomberg Businessweek found that “everywhere you look in publishing these days … you see news organizations experimenting with online-subscription models.” 

Citing a survey by the Online Publishers Association, he said that interviews with execs at Condé Nast, Gannett Community Newspapers, Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Time and The Wall Street Journal revealed that: 


• Online subscriptions don’t cannibalize print subscriptions. … Pay-per-view digital products tend to attract an entirely different set of subscribers.

• Digital data can cut down on subscriber churn. Publishers are using the wealth of data about their customers online to calculate their lifetime value as a subscriber, to predict outcomes of trial subscriptions and to shape strategies to hold onto them longer.

• Charging for content often makes a publisher’s ad space more valuable. Some publishers find they can charge higher rates for ads appearing in subscription environments. Rob Grimshaw, managing director of the London-based Financial Times’ FT.com website, said, “Because of the deep relationship we have with the audience and the data we have on our subscribers, we can guarantee that advertisers reach very specific scarce audiences.”

Now, it’s a question of what the WCPO.com paywall protects. If WCPO.com proves to be a strong news competitor, offering stories and angles that others do not, we all benefit. But if its online readers find its stories elsewhere, fuhgetaboutit. 

Curmudgeon Notes

• Bad weather makes for great visuals but rarely great journalism around here. There seems to be this eternal attitude of surprise. In the summer, some TV reporters talk about heat as if they’d spent their lives in the Yukon. Winter brings out even goofier attempts at “news.”

I forget which local TV news show had its latest young reporter digging into a recent snow, but someone should tell her that her plastic scrapper/brush wasn’t “an ice pick.” Meanwhile, don’t let her near your vehicle. 

Another dubious bit of winter journalism was an Enquirer reporter’s winter tip: Have a bag of kitty litter, birdseed or something else heavy in your trunk to boost traction. That may not help if you, like most of us, have a front-wheel drive vehicle. Adding weight in the back takes it off of the front drive wheels.   

• An e-mail from Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn announced the debut of the expanded morning paper. It would include pages from USAToday among other additions. 

Great timing. Snow, ice, immobility. Just like the day before and the day after. Lousy week for newspaper carriers. Some people didn’t get their New & Improved Enquirer. We finally got it Saturday, the first in four days in the center of the city. 

I can’t imagine the gnashing of teeth and damnation of the gods as the long-planned expanded editions sat ice-bound in the Columbus printing plant, in the Cincinnati-area distribution center(s) or home delivery vehicles.

Apologetic Enquirer emails gave us access to the missed editions. That’s good enough, although readers of a certain age probably never will embrace online morning papers the way we do dead-tree editions. We take the Enquirer for local news. I like the changes. More local news, especially in the first section. Leaving national and international news to the added USAToday section works.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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