The last few months have brought an extraordinary amount of change to Rhode Island’s paper of record. In late April, veteran Providence Journal
executive editor Thomas Heslin stepped down, making way for the first female editor in the paper’s 183-year history, Karen Bordeleau. The following month brought the retirement of another high-ranking veteran, editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb.
Meanwhile, the paper unveiled its most ambitious series in recent memory: “#eWave — The Digital Revolution, an in-depth series of stories, photographs, videos, interactive graphics and social media on all our platforms,” as they described it. Sure, nine years after the founding of Facebook, eight years after YouTube’s birth, seven years into the existence of Twitter, and six years after the first iPhone was perhaps a tad late to break the news that a “digital revolution” was afoot in America. But the series — which covered everything from video surveillance of Narragansett Bay to the ways our brains respond to digital devices to the decline of the printed postcard industry — was a reminder of the kind of smart, thorough, blanket coverage the paper can provide in ways that no other local news organization can.
This past Tuesday, July 23 brought perhaps the biggest change of all — and one aimed squarely at the paper’s bottom line. The paper has officially tossed its strict, we’ll-tease-you-with-125-words-of-an-article-but-you’ll-have-to-subscribe-to-read-the-rest paywall and followed the example of The New York Times, The Washington Post and, according to their own announcement, “more than 300 small-and medium-sized newspapers” by adopting a metered online subscription model.
For you non-news junkies, a “metered model” is a compromise between a totally free news site and a stern, impermeable paywall. The Journal’s new model will let non-subscribers read 15 free, full-length articles per 30-day period. Then, once these readers hit the magic number, they’ll hit a paywall asking them for $16 per month for continued unencumbered digital access. If they decide not to pay, the “meter” will reset once 30 days expire, allowing them to read 15 more articles.
So what does this all mean for the paper?
“I think this is probably a good move for the Journal,” Northeastern journalism professor (and former Boston Phoenix “Don’t Quote Me” media columnist) Dan Kennedy tells us. Few papers have figured how to make an all-content-is-free model work, he says, and at the same time, “when you have a totally strict paywall, you are really cutting yourself off from the sharing power of the Internet, which really is what is the most important thing about the Internet.” (Sharing was possible with the previous Journal pay model, but the process was much more cumbersome than it is now.)
Still, a metered model isn’t a silver bullet for struggling regional dailies like the Journal or The New Haven Register or The Boston Globe, Kennedy says. “In the online era there is absolutely no reason to have a news source — one news source — that combines international news, local news, the funnies, obituaries, sports, grocery ads, school lunch menus,” he says. Regional newspapers are built on the idea that readers will find their niche within the paper. Now, readers simply find those niches elsewhere.