Can metered content save journalism?

Ok, hear me out on this one before you sit down to type out all your objections to metered content/paywalls/paid content  in online news.

Let me just point out how meters and paywalls change the objective of a newsroom.

Today, my company launched meters in four of its markets, including mine. Starting this morning, Ottawacitizen.com is free for print subscribers, 99 cents for the first month and then $9.99/month after that for all-access subscribers. (Here’s the FAQ on our subscriptions, and a note from our Publisher to readers. You can read about our subscription options here).

Rather than express my thoughts on metered content, which a) won’t change a thing, and b) won’t change a thing when it comes to our newsroom, I plan to take a look the long view.  I’ll be watching how meters/paywalls affect the business of news – and how we practise journalism long term.

Because the way we’ve been doing things online – competing for page views so that we can gain revenue from advertisers in a pay-per-click business model – isn’t working.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Ryan Holiday‘s great book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a media manipulator. In his book, he writes about how he consciously abused ‘the link economy’ to get press for non-events and non-news stories.

To simplify his major points:

  1. Small blogs are desperate for page views, and for content. The more they post new content, the more page views they get, making advertisers happy (and the more money a blogger earns)
  2. Medium-sized blogs will take content from smaller blogs, repackage it, and post it with links to the original post.
  3. Larger blogs – including mainstream-media – see content on medium-sized blogs and cover as a trend.

Holiday would never pitch directly to New York Times, he would pitch stories to the blogs these news operations followed. (Forbes.com has a great piece on how Holiday ‘Lied his way into MSNBC, ABC News, The New York Times and more‘.)

So what does this have to do with meters, paywalls and quality journalism?

A lot if you think about it. It has to do with the objectives of a news organization’s website.

If a newsroom is working to get a lot of page views, it’s simply a case of posting a lot of photo galleries, and celebrity stories.  I can only imagine this is why, last winter, we posted galleries illustrating AquaYoga poses and NHL Cheerleaders.

However, once you’re working to please/increase subscribers, your objectives change.

In Holiday’s book, a news editor at the NY Times (sorry for the poor attribution) says that if a meter kicks in after 20 stories behind a paywall “That means we have to have at least 20 quality stories that readers can only read on The New York Times.”

Think about that in regards to this Twitter conversation between  two readers:

Quality local content. That’s exactly what our newsroom is supposed to be focused on – not re-hashing wire stories.

I’m not saying that a meter and paywall will solve all revenue problems in a digital newsroom. I’m not expecting a money truck to pull up outside.

And I struggle with the concept of building a strong, loyal community – while charging for content.

But if it means we turn our attention to quality journalism – and not being page-view whores, posting cheap galleries and the latest celebrity gossip – I think that’s a good thing.

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17 thoughts on “Can metered content save journalism?

  1. Quality is worth paying for any day of the week. Quality should cost a little money because otherwise we are exploiting the labour force and individuals (I’m of the liberal persuasion, does it show?). My questions circulate around what constitutes quality news in my local community? I can’t prescribe that (yet) – but believe I’ll know it when I see it.

  2. I pay for quality…I pay for the NYT, TNR…I’ll pay for quality…that doesn’t include NHL cheerleaders…

  3. Glad to see my little comment was helpful.

    I still find it odd, and frustrating, that Ottawa news does not have top level navigation on the Citizen website, it betrays the paper’s commitment to local news.

    As someone with a journalistic background I am willing to pay for quality content but in these days of aggregation publications need to pick a niche and cover it really well.

    For the Citizen that niche is Ottawa, Ottawa news, Ottawa entertainment, Ottawa business and Ottawa sports. Of course mixing in some national news is important so long as the story can somehow be related to something in Ottawa or given a local twist. With due respect, I get my national news from the Globe.

    The exception is covering the Hill of course since it is in our backyard but the coverage should be more that just talking points and press conferences but rather in-depth analysis. To be fair, I find the Citizen has done pretty wall in this regard.

    That’s really where things are headed, choosing different content sources based on quality in a given beat. People don’t look to the local paper for all their news anymore so newspapers should stop trying to be the all-in-one portal for news.

    I have definitely seen the increase in local focus at the Citizen, which is the reason I’m willing to pay for it, but I do think a lot more can be done.

    Ottawa needs a serious, sober news source and lord knows the Sun isn’t going to fill the void.

    1. If that’s what they want — and you have a local (Ottawa) angle to it — then that, TOO, should be provided. The idea is that if you ask people to pay (more), you need to give more. And quality is the place media should strive for (adding) more. Cheerleader photos are something people can get many places.

  4. As a Canadian working in American journalism I like to keep an eye on news trends in both countries, and this one is becoming inevitable for papers who want to stay relevant (and alive). Our paper, California’s third-largest daily, has recently changed owners and they finally freed us from the page view treadmill to concentrate on real journalism again. Yes, the pending paywall will scare away some readers. But those who remain will be the kind of readers newspapers strive to attract: serious, demanding, and as committed to the community as we try to be. High-quality, locally focused journalism has intrinsic value. It’s time to stop giving it away for free.

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