The Providence Journal's long-awaited paywall went up this week.
Seven-day print subscribers get free access to the paper's web site and iPad app. But everyone else has to pay $4 to $8 per week now, depending on the package, for the digital products.
The news, judging from readers' comments on the ProJo's web site and elsewhere on the Internet, has not been well received. And much of the critique has focused on the quality of the lo-fi web site: why pay for access to a glorified replica of the print product?
It is a legitimate concern. Posting what amounts to a pdf of the print edition hardly seems in step with the iPad era. And in the long run, the paper will have to do better.
But the criticism, in some ways, misses the point.
The paywall, it seems, is not about generating significant revenue from the web site; that's proven all-but-impossible for the newspaper industry. It's really about driving readers back to the far more profitable print-and-ink version of the Providence Journal.
Indeed, if you want to judge the success of the paywall — and if you care about the short- and medium-term prospects of Rhode Island's largest news organization — the number to watch in the coming months is not web traffic, but print circulation.
Actually adding print subscribers in this period would count as a major success. But stopping the bleeding is probably a more realistic goal.
Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation are pretty striking. Average daily circulation for the Monday-Friday editions of the paper, excluding the free ProjoExpress mini-paper, was about 90,000 for the six months ending September 25, 2011. That's a staggering 40 percent drop from the 153,000 of five years earlier.
There are myriad reasons for the plummeting print circulation. But one of the most important is the diminished quality of the product.
The Providence Journal, of course, is hardly alone here. Budget-cutting papers from coast-to-coast have slashed staff and narrowed their ambitions. But if the company is to hold onto its core readers moving forward — if it is to pull out of its print circulation freefall — it has to find a way to turn out more compelling journalism.
Indeed, in this digital era, the biggest challenge for the ProJo is one as old as the typewriter: producing a good read. And it can be done. A few suggestions from this humble media critic.
First, assign more columnists and put them on the front page. The paper is too often dry on A1 and it needs more bite — columnist Bob Kerr, et al, can provide it.
Second, there should be a "news analysis" piece on the front page every day. Next to the straight story on the latest initiative out of the Department of Education, for instance, print a take on how Education Commissioner Deborah Gist is navigating the Chafee era. The ProJo has a newsroom of unmatched size and institutional memory. It can provide much-needed context and it should.
Third, assign one of the paper's most talented scribes as a senior political reporter. The political coverage seems driven by the paper's capable State House bureau. But the ProJo needs someone outside the hustle and bustle of the legislative process — someone who is dedicated to writing about Congressman David Cicilline's political woes or the evolving relationship between Governor Chafee and his potential rival, Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Politics is Rhode Island's blood sport; the ProJo should treat it as such.
There are other things the paper could do — more in the way of colorful, front-page features on Newport aristocracy or Providence hipsterdom, for instance. But the larger point is clear: with the web site pushed to the side, for better or for worse, the Providence Journal — more than ever — needs to give readers a real reason to pick up the paper.