While I was traveling back to North Carolina from vacation late last month I got an email from city editor Brent Lancaster. All it said was this:
“Paywall in about a year and a half.”
Well, that made the scenery in Pennsylvania disappear for a minute or two.
Brent sent the message shortly after attending a meeting with Michael Redding, the CEO of Halifax Media Group — our new owners. The long-pending sale of the Times-News and other North Carolina newspapers formerly owned by Freedom Communications, Inc. had become final while I was visiting Syracuse, N.Y. and Cooperstown, N.Y. Our publisher Paul Mauney kept me up to date as I toured the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Brent obviously did, too.
What Redding told our people was also what he told my friends in Jacksonville, New Bern, Kinston, Gastonia and Shelby, we will be charging for online content and it won’t be very long before it happens.
I wasn’t surprised by the news. Newspapers have been experimenting with so-called “paywalls” for the past couple of years. People in newsrooms have supported charging customers for web content all along. After all, it’s hard to watch the results of a hard day’s work simply be given away for free.
Media companies, though, have been hesitant to do it. So many companies are giving away content and have from the dawn of the Internet. From the start it seemed the best way to build an audience. And Freedom’s interactive division firmly believed that digital publication eliminates delivery costs, which should eliminate the paywall.
But it was a point of contention within the corporation. So there were test sites at some of our newspapers where paywalls in some form were offered. A few followed the New York Times model — up to a certain amount of stories at no cost but a charge thereafter. I heard no conclusive information about what occurred as a result.
We will know more about what Halifax has in mind after the system goes into place at the company’s flagship newspaper in Daytona, Fla., in October. But Redding told the gathering at our office that it would take shape as a monthly charge for using www.thetimesnews.com.
I know we’ll hear a lot of static about it from our online audience but from a business standpoint it makes sense. The decline in print revenue has decimated newsgathering abilities at nearly every newspaper in the nation. Offering the services of reporters, writers and photographers is a costly endeavor.
We can’t simply give it away anymore — no one can.
What Redding did say was very positive. Halifax, he said, is dedicated to print journalism but also understands the importance of meeting the new habits of readers. It’s made a huge investment. The company owned one newspaper on Jan. 5. Now it owns 36 with a total circulation of 635,000 daily and 752,000 on Sundays.
So they’ve put a lot of eggs in this basket.
“One question I get all the time is: print or digital,” he said. “I think that’s the wrong question. We’re going to be great at all of it.”
If a paywall is going to work, we’ll have to redouble our efforts to provide local content our customers can’t get anywhere else.
I’m for that.