YDR Insider

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York reader’s paywall perspective sparks subscription debate

A terrific dialogue has ensued in a recent post I made here at the YDR Insider. It’s exactly the type of conversation we were looking for when we launched this blog site.

I shared an email exchange I had with a reader named Cathy, who was not happy about our decision to charge for unlimited access to our web-based content. What’s more, she offered thoughtful options for us to pursue.

If we were to get any comments on that post, I thought, they would be purely in support of Cathy’s view that we should not charge. To my surprise, we have seen debate on this. Some of the commenters have spelled out why our industry should be charging. Others. of course, have rallied behind Cathy. And she has reinforced her stand with even more thoughts, such as:

I agree there must be a business model that can make an online newspaper profitable. My hunch is it will look a lot different from the print newspaper business model. Randy’s comment that an all free online paper means charging more for the print version tell me YDR isn’t looking at the big picture. Yahoo is free to the user and quite profitable and certainly not supporting their online content with a printed paper. Of course they do it with advertising. When I log on to Yahoo there are ads for Bare Minerals makeup. When my boyfriend logs on to Yahoo there are ads for Bass Pro Shop. The same targeted marketing can take place at YDR.

It’s fascinating for me to watch such discussions unfold because they mirror heated discussions we had within our company for nearly a year. The York Daily Record was chosen as one of two beta sites for our parent company’s experiment with the paywall concepts. MediaNews Group, the second-largest newspaper company in America, wanted to explore this issue. So for months in 2010 and 2011, we were meeting on the phone and in person with some of the best minds available. Because we were basically inventing something, there was plenty of room for debate, discussion and, well … fights.

I came to be seen as one of the most passionate supporters of a paywall. I didn’t start out that way. At first I thought this was a suicide mission. In time, though, I came to see many advantages. I’ll continue to spell those out in this section of this blog, but you can see many of my thoughts in this column, published last year.

Even so, I never lost respect for the other side of the argument. Perhaps that is because I believe that a pay-to-play model is, at best, a temporary solution. Technology will continue to advance, habits will continue to evolve. We have to know that we will never sit still for long. Today’s revolutionary concept is tomorrow’s basic expectation. Or worse, it is tomorrow’s quaint notion.

But for now, the advertising world that Cathy envisions is not working for local newspapers. We have aggressively pursued such efforts, and for a lot of interesting reasons, they have not sufficiently sustained us. As an industry, we have bled money over the past generation. Money lost to many online competitors has not been replaced with our own online revenue. We have plans — good plans that are already in motion — to change that. If those plans work, there will be no need for online subscriptions. If they work, Cathy’s vision will bear out.

In the meantime, we need to explore all possibilities to ensure our viability as an industry. Not to get rich. Not to try to become the next Google Gazillionaires. But to ensure that our communities are well-served by credible, independent, aggressive and well-resourced local newsrooms.