Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another Brick in the Pay Wall

The journey from free news to pay sites is well underway. The latest media giant to make the switch is my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, and I'm dreading it.

Boston.com has been my go-to site for news from home ever since I moved overseas. It's not my homepage (hello, Google!), but it's always the first site that I hit every day after checking my e-mails. The new pay system will essentially sequester all of the newspaper content behind a paywall leaving Boston.com with AP wire stories, bloggers and the Sports section, which will remain free and fully accessible. In addition, Boston.com will be able to feature up to 5 stories from the newspaper each day on the free site, but that's all.

This is frustrating for me because I've been a regular Globe reader since the 4th grade and I was even among the last generation of paperboys for them I the late 80s. Today it remains one of my last links to my hometown and what's going on there. Maybe I should have cut the cord years ago, but I've never been able to walk away from it completely. This may do the trick, though.

I'm a bit of an unusual case since I live overseas (I doubt that the folks at Boston.com have a very large expat demographic that they're worried about), but I'm not even sure if I could justify the cost of paying for the "paper" version if I was still living in Boston. Frankly, it doesn’t pass the smell test for me: Access will cost $3.99 per week, but you can subscribe to the Sunday paper for $3.50 per week and get in that way; it's a pretty obvious ploy to increase Sunday circulation.

Everybody knows that newspapers need to make more money somehow, but this paywall doesn’t feel like the right way. It's basically a retrenchment to the physical paper; it's a step backwards when I think that they should be expanding into different forms of media. They should re-open their Washington bureau and align with outfits like GlobalPost. They should produce more video. They could start broadcasting. They could buy into NECN and produce content with them. They could put some of that behind a paywall. Make the stuff that lives back there premium somehow. Don't make me pay for the same-old, same-old.

Boston's Paper of Record is (insultingly) a subsidiary of the New York Times (which also owns the Worcester Telegram-Gazette), which instituted its own paywall several months ago and, to my own surprise, I have actually come to like it. I even posted on Facebook that I would probably end up visiting the site much less as a result of it, but I'm eating crow now, as I read it just as much as I ever have. It allows for easy circumvention so leeches like me can get onto it for free, but is just annoying enough to get some folks to pay for it, and it has the benefit of helping their circulation, too.

Last month Wired's Felix Salmon wrote a great piece on the success of the Times' rather porous paywall. He posited that letting people get limited, but not exclusive, access to their content makes the Times a more attractive destination than, say, the Wall Street Journal.

If you hit the paywall on a regular basis and barge past it, eventually you start feeling a bit guilty and pay up. By contrast, if you hit the FT or WSJ paywall and can’t get past it, you simply go away and feel disappointed in your experience.

He even noted that given the "gentle" quest from a valued institution to pay a little or make a donation, people tend to actually do it:

Here’s the thing about freeloaders: if they value what they’re getting, a lot of them will end up paying anyway. What happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by 33%.

Given their modest success, I wondered why the Globe didn’t just follow its daddy's model, but then I realized that the Times actually produces a shitload of content while the Globe, well, doesn’t.

The division between the website and the "paper" started last week and you can already see the difference. Boston.com has looked mighty thin of late and seems to have basically turned into an AP wire site (which I can get in a million different places in a much better-organized, cleaner format) with lots of trash (i.e. fashion, parties photos and celebrity garbage) that newshounds like myself couldn't care less about. They also seem to be putting their bloggers more front-and-center instead of burying them at the bottom of the site like they used to, turning them into low rent columnists, while the real ones are now hidden behind the paywall. (I wonder how they like the idea of going from a site with 7 million unique hits per month to a subscription-only audience of under 250,000 people.) I'm quickly finding that I have less and less reason to stop there since most of the local news content has been (or will be) put behind the paywall.

Which is, I guess, the whole point of the operation. Unfortunately, while this method may help to stabilize revenues, I don’t see it as being the foundation upon which the Globe can re-build itself into the pre-eminent news organization that it used to be. And that's a damn shame.