Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My Newsroom Lies Over The Paywall

Last month the Kitsap Sun set up their paywall and cut Puget Sound readers off from reporting by Christopher Dunagan, one of the few remaining environmental journalists covering Puget Sound water quality and habitat issues.

Sun editor David Nelson believes erecting the paywall to limit online access to print and digital subscribers will make the Sun a better publication. He wrote on May 11:

“A digital subscription covers all of our online coverage, but readers will always be able to access certain ‘free’ stories — our daily weather report, news with a public safety element such as fires or inclement weather. Certain other stories, such as government decisions that make a difference in your life, or sports scores, will be available to all for a limited number of hours before becoming “premium” stories only for subscribers.”
After “a limited number of hours” Chris Dunagan’s stories are pay-for-view at $10 a month.

I like newspapers and I like Chris’s reporting but I don’t think paying $10 a month is going to give me any more or better environmental reporting nor is it going to give Chris a bigger paycheck. David Nelson couches the Sun’s paywall decision as a decision about better journalism. It isn’t. It’s a financial decision and a last-ditch effort to boost paid subscriptions to sell advertising.

Subscriptions alone have never paid for reporters’ salaries and, in that respect, their product was and is in large part “free.” Advertising revenues paid for most of  the newsroom salaries and, in the days of shrinking ad revenues, newsrooms get slashed and fewer reporters now cover multiple beats.

 Last Friday, PR Daily reported that the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff. The Sun-Times justified it not as a financial decision but as a journalistic one by writing:
"The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network."  
Readers won’t get better journalism. Sun-Times reporters will now take news photos. Will they get paid more and the journalistic product improved? Don’t think so.

The Sun’s paywall decision leaves only the Sound Publishing-owed Peninsula Daily News and The Herald of Everett as Puget Sound daily papers for now without paywalls. The Herald’s circulation had been dropping before the purchase last April by Sound Publishing. According to Greg Lamm in the Puget Sound Business Journal, “The Herald saw its average daily circulation — which included print and digital subscriptions — shrink 15 percent for the six month period that ended March 31, compared to a year ago. Sunday circulation declined 8.4 percent. The declining numbers suggest Sound Publishing will be focused not only on growing revenue through added readers, but also on looking for more ways to cut costs.”

Paywalls, anyone?

We live in a time of diminished expectations and shrinking baselines when it comes to news coverage on many issues like the environment in Puget Sound. I’ll risk sounding like an old guy by saying it used to be a lot more fun and a lot more interesting when there were many more reporters competing to get a story in print and on the radio and TV about an environmental issue or event.

I’m not sure what the price point is for paying for quality news reporting but I know what I’m paying for currently isn’t quality in coverage or depth. The Columbia Journalism Review reports that the Orange County Register’s investment is in hiring more reporters and giving readers good journalism— and charging them for it. Will it work? If we knew the answer to that we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in. But if it does work, maybe the days of print journalism with its material costs will finally evolve into more cost-efficient and timely digital versions.

I never believed the civic line that we had to have big sports arenas and professional sports teams in baseball, football and basketball in order to be a world-class region. But I always believed that we needed to have quality news reporting to be a world-class region. Maybe we can have both.

--Mike Sato


  1. The cutting off of Dunagan's Blog does not help the Kitsap sun get more paid subscribers. If anything, it diminishes their ability to gain new ones or to get revenue. The work that Mike and I, along with others, do on our blogs, in highlighting Chris' work through publishing the title and snippet of what is covered in the blog, along with a link to point users to their site, is a free advertising to drive viewers to the pay per click ads and other ways that the Sun makes money. We never use the whole story, we use teasers, and we push people to subscribe. (I usually post "support local journalism, subcribe to whatever outlet I'm quoting). We often offer analysis to the story that would make the user want to read the original work.

    To better understand who their audience of online readers are, and attract advertisers that cater to that audience, is crucial to survival. They obviously haven't done that, and don't.

    This simply is another nail in the coffin of journalism. The failure of the Sun and other for profit news outlets to understand the advertising model as well as the fact that bloggers like Mike and I are supporting their existence rather than harming it is indicative of that failure. I would be willing to debate the editors of the Sun on that topic any time and anywhere.

  2. Right on, Mike.

  3. It does not seem like the news papers and news mags. have yet figured out a profitable transition to the 21st century.

    Here is a piece of (what to me, anyway, is) irony. I just finished reading a book called Keepers of the Lights from 1955 - a narrative and anecdotal history of the lighthouse service and Coast Guard regarding mostly light houses but also other aids to navigation. One anecdote is "It took place on the evening of August 23, 1899, when the first wireless message ever to be flashed .. on any American coast, was sent from the San Francisco Lightship to a station established at Cliff House on San Francisco's ocean front." "Experiments had been going on for some little time in San Francisco, very largely at the expense of the San Francisco Call, a newspaper which foresaw the value of wireless for the more prompt reporting of important events." This was shortly after Marconi and his invention of radio. The wireless transmissions did not work well near cities because the existing electrical systems interfered with transmission - thus the transmissions from a lightship!

    Anyway - blame the whole journalistic mess we are in on that damned San Francisco Call.

  4. Thanks for the comments. One pithy emailer commented: "The more they put up paywalls the less relevant they become as fewer people want to read their articles. have you noticed that TV stations with on-line reporting are going nowhere near this model and I wonder why..."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.