Newspapers finally get it right

Editorial Board / Washburn Review

“Print journalism is dead.”

Those in the journalism field have been screaming this from the rooftops for at least a decade now and the industry finds itself trying to swim through the world wide web while maintaining relevance in our ever-changing culture… and profitability.

Unfortunately, those in the upper echelons of the field weren’t able to see where the future was going and now face the same problem the movie and recording industries faced 10 years ago. How do you keep your customers paying when everything you offer can be found for free somewhere else?

The war began quietly enough, but it was over before it even began. Many newspapers entered the online world in the early and mid-nineties thinking it was nothing more than a passing fad. Quickly, they began to figure out that effective websites weren’t cheap to maintain and that, just like in the dead-tree world, advertising was needed to keep the sites running.

First, there were the banner ads, but readers didn’t click on them and advertisers decided to kick it up a notch with pop-up and pop-under ads. This was the industry’s first major mistake and it’s been an arms race since then with computer users continually fighting for the right to not be annoyed. We install ad-blocking plugins and software on any computer. To make it easy, both Firefox and Internet Explorer come with pop-up blockers built in.

For a time, newspapers began to branch out in to alternate and niche websites to boost their corporate bottom lines. However, many of these fell out of use simply because the resources weren’t available to maintain these niche sites at a level that would keep readers coming back on a regular basis.

Now, the latest trend is to begin charging readers subscriptions for online content. This is a step in the right direction and something newspapers should have done years ago. The Wall Street Journal was a trailblazer in this new frontier and has managed to make a respectable go at paid content, but this may be to the Journal’s unique clientele. The New York Times recently began a paywall experiment of its own and its success is still to be determined. Research showed that page views dropped by as much as 15 percent following the introduction of their pay-to-read format. Even as loopholes and hacks to bypass the paywall pop up, the Times also claims to have over 100,000 subscribers to their online content. So the success of this little trial will probably be determined by the bean counters in accounting.

While this may be easy for large, national, publications it’s going to be a much tougher sell for local morning papers to find this amount of success simply because they don’t offer enough local content to make a paid we subscription worth the cost. Regionally, The Hutchinson News began its own paywall. From where we sit as  consumers of the news, there isn’t enough unique content to  want to throw down the cash for a subscription. And besides, simply by enabling the “private browsing” function in Firefox one can bypass the paywall entirely.

So, where are we left standing in all this mess? As iPads and other tablet devices become more commonplace, I believe subscribers will find themselves more willing to pay for subscriptions, treating websites more like a traditional newspaper. But whatever the future offers, this is a fascinating time to be a journalist and the horizon is limitless.