Halifax and Nova Scotia’s main newspaper, the Chronicle-Herald, is considering setting up a paywall for access to its online stories. Funny that it was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that reported this, not the Herald itself! (Oct 17 2012)

A paywall is a system where surfers would get some stories free, but would have to pay a monthly subscription for most of the other stories. Or you’d get snippets of some or all stories, but would have to pay for the rest of the content. Either way, you’d be having to pay for most of the content. What I want to know in a survey is

Personally, my analysis is that it’d be a stupid move. Save your consideration time and get some reporting done. Here are many reasons why.

Lots of free competition. There is the daily Metro website and print newspaper, both of which are free. The CBC website is free, with a Nova Scotia local section. CTV has the same.  There is the local weekly The Coast and its website, both of which are also free. There are also other minor local news sources. For national, international or other far away stories, there are many free news sites, including the CBC, CTV, CNN, and so on. Provincially, there are numerous county and regional print newspapers with websites focused on local events that people will turn to for their local stories. Those outlets will only become more prominent to locals if they lose most access to the Chronicle-Herald.

People are used to your free news already. While they may appreciate your news a lot, to suddenly have to pay, even if a penny a month, is another matter. Paying is a psychological barrier that’s hard for a lot of people to get past. The people have lots of free alternatives and will easily switch if put up against a paywall.

Limited readership. The Chronicle-Herald isn’t exactly the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, both of which have paywalls but a huge global readership. They are definitive news sources, and have the economy of scale to do paywalls. The Herald? We don’t even have 1 million people in Nova Scotia, and about 400,000 in the Halifax Regional Municipality, its main audience base. There aren’t that many people around the world who cares for it to make its full base that much larger. Compared to the large cities which’s newspapers have paywalls, the Herald’s audience base is nothing. Click here to see a list of American newspaper with paywalls.

Further limited readership from breaking its audience between those who pay and those who don’t. Imagine this. I pay for the Chronicle-Herald’s paywall. I read a great story. I then want to tell my friends about it. Hey, did you see that great story in the Herald about… No, I don’t have a subscription. End of story. I want to share it on Facebook or tweet it. If I can, people who click on it will only hit a wall and leave a bad taste in their mouths. Or they might hit it if they have surpassed their free quota, but it’ll still be on their minds. I have isolated myself, which for the social creatures we humans are, I would not want to be paying to do!

Reduced ad revenues. Right now, the Chronicle-Herald get some ad revenues which they can sell at a certain traffic rate. That is, let’s say they get a million page views a day, and let’s say they run just one ad to keep the math simple. They can charge a good amount for that ad to appear a million times per day. With a paywall, that traffic would significantly be lower. Let’s say it’s 100,000 page views per day. Well, they’d only be able to charge for that ad to appear 100,000 times a day, which would be significantly less, proportionately (10% original) or not. The trick is being able to generate more revenue from subscriptions than the difference here, and it would be quite the trick to pull off from reasons already stated.

What about the all paid AllNovaScotia.com news site?

Now, those of you who know about AllNovaScotia.com, a successful all paid news site in Halifax, might point to it and ask why I’m so pessimistic about the Chronicle-Herald only partially blocking its content with a paywall? Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, too. I’m not going to go too much into it but point you to this great article from the local King’s Journalism Review from 2011 that explains a lot of it in a review of the North American online newspaper paywall situation. To summarize, it’s because:

  • AllNovaScotia is a business and political focused newspaper that has an audience with money (companies)
  • Very limited coverage means carrying a lean staff and overhead
  • Protection from content sharing with articles in Flash animation so you can copy to paste, or find by search engines (although there is screen capture for pasting into Word docs to send)
  • Passionate and motivated staff, in part aided by its competitive work environment
  • It’s not easy work or success, with people doubting it’s actually even making money with the owner also owning other media outlets

The Chronicle-Herald needs to reinvent itself completely

I’m no expert in this matter, but I don’t like to criticize without offering alternatives, so here are some thoughts.

If the Chronicle-Herald is in need of revenue, which would be the main reason that it’d be considering putting up a paywall, it should consider completely reinventing itself. This relatively simple hybrid model of a solution to partly offer free content and partly paid content is hardly sufficient. How? Here are some ideas:

  • Get focus, like more local stories. People love to see themselves and people they know in the media! Then try to get in themselves. You know how you buy a dozen copies of that paper you were in? Then frame a copy and become attached to that paper? That’s what I’m talking about. If your audience base is local, then feature lots of locals. If you really want stories from beyond, link them on certain pages dedicated to stories from beyond, and stream new stories on the site and Twitter.
  • Become leaner for staffing and overheads. Everybody is doing this. If the Herald is already doing it, try harder then cause it’s obviously not enough.
  • Maybe cut out print all together. Print revenues aren’t the majority of revenues for a newspaper. It comes with a fair bit of expenses, though. Cut it out all together and focus on the online version, selling off some assets and reinvesting. Ad revenues are key so work harder for more ad revenues, which you can charge more of with an online focused media outlet. Obviously, nobody will be buying lots of copies of papers they appear in, but these days, Facebook and other social media is the way to spread things anyway. Just generate more traffic.
  • Offer souvenirs and perks with content. So you have a nice photo of some people and/or event. Offer to sell it at a reasonable, but profitable price. Maybe offer to frame it and get more for it. As a souvenir, it can probably get more than just a photo so profit should be relatively easy. Or just offer to send the high resolution digital file and let the people do the work themselves since it’s people time to get it processed that would cost the most. You can do this with story text, too, to offer to frame it in print as if a real newspaper story. You know, stuff like that.

Regardless, I think the Chronicle-Herald is going to have to get creative, and tough, to generate more revenue, cause this paywall model just won’t cut it in Nova Scotia in the current economic and media climate.

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