By Wayne MacPhail
Published July 19, 2013
this blog entry has been updated
I was disappointed to read the recent announcement that The Spectator's website and its apps would be surrounded by a serious paywall. That is, with the exception of five stories a month, the content of local news, beyond headlines, would be available only to Hamiltonians who subscribed to the paper.
Perhaps, to readers who don't make much use of social media tools like Twitter, Path, facebook or blogs; this makes perfect sense. Why should online readers get for free what subscribers to the printed Spectator have to pay for?
Fair enough. But, we are no longer in the golden days of newspapers and print newspaper circulation. And, we are no longer in the time when local news was also a significant (and sometimes the only) vector of international news, comics, horoscopes, movie reviews and classified ads. So, the old rules no longer apply.
That's one of the reasons The Spectator has the sense not to put international news behind their paywall. It's become commodified. It has no value to differentiate and certainly offers no incentive for anyone to pay for an online subscription.
It is through its local coverage that The Spec feels it differentiates itself. Starting July 22, that local content will be locked safely inside a vending machine.
So, here are my problems with that.
In the last six months the #hamont hashtag on Twitter has become a focal point for the discussion of local news, foods, events, issues and weather. Also in the last six months, the number of Spectator reporters and their posts on Twitter has increased dramatically (and is most welcome).
Spec photographers, writers, columnists and editors have been sharing links to stories, photos and videos daily. Clearly, the Spec has encouraged this upswing in the social capital of the Spec team. So, here's my question: Now what are they going to talk about?
What would be the point of @emmaatthespec pointing to a story you have to subscribe to The Spectator to read?
In many cases, when paywalls go up at papers, online readership goes down as much as 90 percent. So, it's fair to imagine that the majority of local Twitter users who follow #hamont will not subscribe and will not be able to access stories the Spec's reports Tweet about.
So, two things happen. First, the reporters will piss of the #hamont community because they keep linking to stories most can't read. This is already happening when reporters from YourHamiltonBiz point to their paywalled stories. [Editor's note: YourHamiltonBiz does regularly post links to open content on social networks, and when it posts links to paywalled content, it marks the links "[subscribers]".]
Second, Spec reporter tweets will become de facto ads whose subtext is "Subscribe to the Spec". Not really the best way for anyone to build social capital and, frankly, a bit embarrassing all around.
So, by disappearing its content behind a paywall, the Spec has frittered away the hard work and good will its reporters have already built up.
Also, a a quick aside, why wouldn't Andrew Dreschel and other high profile writers start taking their valuable brands elsewhere?
But, more importantly, this issue raises a broader one. By going behind a paywall, the Spec is basically cutting itself off from online discourse. Who will want to link to stories most folks won't see? That just pisses everyone off. Who would blog or post to facebook about it? What would be the point?
But perhaps the good will, and one would presume, increased awareness of (and pageviews to) Spec stories don't matter, because what really matters is the revenue from print ads. And, you might say, people will read about it in print. Well, for now. But, clearly print is struggling. The Spec has to be thinking ahead to a mobile device future, not betting on a dead tree product for an aging demographic.
Paywalls are not future focussed. They just shore up an old, tired business model that results in a gated community the residents of which never go downtown. And, it's not like newspapers haven't had decades to think through a forward-focussed business model.
Tablet-based newspapers were demonstrated and prototyped by my former colleague, Knight-Ridder's Roger Fidler in 1994 and I was showing newspaper publishers in Canada news on a tablet about the same time. In fact, lots of other folks at newspapers across Canada in the 90s saw what was coming.
So, in 2011 to have a business plan that is so clearly burdened by the baggage and ad models of the past is not a success, it's a failure of imagination.
My final argument is this: This move couldn't come at a worse time.
Independent activists and journalists like Joey Coleman and Ryan McGreal are doing an admirable job raising local issues and livestreaming City Hall (something the Spec could have done years ago). CBC Hamilton is providing solid local coverage - or at least solid enough that, when aggregated with the open offerings of other local outlets and #hamont, will give many Hamiltonians a free alternative to The Spec.
So, it's not like the Spec is the only game in town. Yes, it does some great investigative work, but it is human nature to "satisfice" to go with what is free and easy rather than higher quality services that cost and have a barrier to entry.
It's a shame. I'm sure the folks behind the paywall will enjoy themselves. But they'll also just be talking to themselves. And a community paper should be talking with the community and finding a forward-focussed way of engaging that increasing social media aware public in a discourse that makes business sense.
Good fences, in this case, do not make good neighbours, or neighbourhoods.
First published on Wayne MacPhail's tumblr.
Update: updated to add a note that YourHamiltonBiz does post links to open content. You can jump to the changed paragraph.
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