As suddenly as the Berlin Wall fell, paywalls went up today across the Postmedia “content network,” or whatever we call what we used to call “newspaper chains.” Steve Ladurantaye, media reporter for the competing Globe, broke the news to a non-waiting nation by posting the death notice internal memo on his personal website.
“As you know, the move to a paid digital content model on our newspaper websites and apps has been a multi-phased process rolling out over the last two years,” it reads. “Postmedia led the Canadian industry with the launch of the paid online content pilot project in May 2011 at two of our newspaper websites. We have taken a thoughtful approach to this project and we rolled out the second phase of our pilot project in August 2012 . . . . We must find ways to continue providing our readers with award-winning and premium content across our four platforms and be appropriately compensated for it.”
Conspicuously, the memo doesn’t say how those pilot projects have worked, but according to a comScore study cited here, the answer is probably “not great.”
“An analysis of four newspapers — one from each of Canada’s major publishers — that have gone behind paywalls in the past year finds that, on average, unique visitors were up four per cent year-over-year in the opening months of 2013 when all four papers were behind a paywall . . . .
But compared with the first quarter of 2012, when none of these papers was behind a paywall, total pages viewed fell an average of 43 per cent, average minutes per visitor declined 40 per cent and average pages per visitor were down 43 per cent, the comScore figures reveal.”
Look, I hope Postmedia’s paywall gambit works. I really do. Now, here’s why it probably won’t.
Most newspapers have realized that cutting off digital freeloaders entirely would turn their websites into your basic blasted heaths, so they continue to allow visitors to view a certain number of pages per month without subscribing (usually 10). That means that even if I wanted to comprehensively gather news from newspaper websites (why I would want to, given that handy little CBC RSS feed in the upper right corner of our site, I don’t know), I can do so by ranging across a variety of them without ever exceeding the 10 pages/month quota on any one.
Then there’s the fact that if you really want to access more than 10 pages per month on a particular site without paying, you can usually do so simply by clearing the cookies in your browser. (I just tried it on a Postmedia site. It worked.) But let’s assume that they’ll figure out a way to close that loophole, just as The New York Times did another well-known one. The sorry fact is that there just isn’t enough unique content on Postmedia sites to merit paying for it. And as they continue to buy-out and lay off employees, their sites become yet more degraded. The New York Times has had some success with its paywall because it created a sort of digital playland of videos and slideshows and one-stop shopping for things like theatre tickets before it presumed to start charging for access. Postmedia hasn’t done anything like that, and while they claim they’re going to do so now, that parrot is dead; it is a deceased parrot. I’m afraid that Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley isn’t just being competitive when he says that “All [Postmedia is] doing is putting up a paywall just simply to grab some cash.” He’s also being right.
Not that these businesses will necessarily fold. They might, but they might also survive by becoming some ungodly combination of old-school journalism and unmarked advertorial — or, as Pacific Newspaper Group president and publisher Gordon Fisher already puts it, “content, sales and marketing” companies. I suppose if I really didn’t want to see that happen, I wouldn’t have mentioned that little trick to bypass their paywalls, or moved our CBC RSS feed to the top of the sidebar, just to make sure you notice you can come here to get the top stories of the day for free. (You already paid for them with your taxes.) But I’m not so sympathetic to the plight of the old boys that I won’t, like every other new media publisher out there, take advantage of it. Postmedia will have to whistle in the dark for a while. The rest of us don’t.