So, the Chicago Sun-Times has put up a metered paywall.
To most people I know, this doesn’t mean a whole lot. They didn’t read the Sun-Times (or the Tribune) before, and they will now continue to not read it, saving some money in the process.
But it does mean something to the future of news community, the people who are closely tracking what business models have a chance to keep news organizations in business. These are the same people who followed the recent New York Times and Boston Globe paywall launches, and who regularly check the Harvard Nieman Lab‘s coverage of experiments in digital news.
It means something to the people working at the Sun-Times and its suburban media partners – the ones who haven’t been laid off yet, I mean. It’s not only about whether or not they’ll have their jobs anymore, but about whether the work they’re doing will be seen by anyone. It’s something Roger Ebert was concerned about (the paper’s most important writer was later informed that his reviews would not be included).
And it means something to me – not just because I was laid off from the Sun-Times a year and a half ago (almost to the day, actually), but because while I was there, I worked on a project that was, in some ways, the precursor to the current paywall effort. Back in the summer of 2009, I was tapped to manage the implementation of a paywall for a portion of the Sun-Times site known as the Data Lounge, where various searchable information was stored.
There was plenty of skepticism about the project around the company; why jeopardize a significant amount of page views and associated ad revenue in order to get a small amount of subscription income? Even when the numbers showed that we’d need a significant percentage of our current audience to sign up — higher than seemed feasible – to make money on the move, we forged ahead. It soon became clear to me that this project was less about the money we’d make or lose by blocking off the Data Lounge than it was a baby step in the direction of locking down the whole site. It was about dipping the company toe in the water, preparing people for what was to come down the road.
Despite CEO Jeremy Halbreich’s statement that the paywall represents the “next step in [Sun-Times Media's] digital business plan,” this feels like a desperation move. Company leaders have to know that it significantly weakens the Sun-Times’ position in the market. It’s one thing for a daily in a small city with no competition to begin charging for online content (which is why the paywall may actually work for some of Sun-Times Media’s smaller outlets, which have been propping up the big one for a while now). When there’s another paper in town (one that already has a larger readership and better reputation), it’s hard to remain viable. Readers simply have too many options to get news about what’s happening in Chicago.
Basically, the paper’s banking on its city hall coverage and its columnists to have enough cachet among readers as to make the subscription fee worth it. I think it’s a big test of reader loyalty that ultimately is not going to work – and speaking of loyalty, I’m somewhat surprised that print subscribers will still need to pay for online access under the Sun-Times plan ($1.99 per four weeks vs. $6.99 for a non-print subscriber). This is different from the efforts of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, both of which have actually boosted their circulation numbers by bundling print and online access (the pioneers in the paywall space, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, offer subsidized bundles). Given the earful I got from subscribers following the Data Lounge paywall launch, I can only imagine what the customer service department – or what’s left of it – is dealing with now.
Maybe it will all work out; maybe the recent launch of the Sun-Times mobile app — another project I remember discussing two years ago — represents the birth of a new, digitally savvy organization with an eye toward the future and the resources to see things through. I’m skeptical, but then I’m skeptical about most things; I learned during a recent meeting that what I think of as my neutral expression comes with a furrowed brow. I do know that I’ll be one of many people paying attention –- but that’s all I’ll be paying.