News worth paying for?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 2, 2009

"Overall," says Kennedy, of pay walls, "I think it's a pretty bad idea."

Some analysts have a more optimistic view. Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, says pay walls "may not turn out to be the great elixir for all print publications."

But readers, he suggests, may be more willing to go along with the new model — in the long run — than the polls would indicate. "The consumers — they're growing as the media organizations are growing," he says.

Part of the trick, Irby says, is striking the right balance between free and paid journalism on the Web. With competition bound to remain fierce for breaking news — the latest shooting or announcement from the governor — newspaper Web sites cannot afford to put as-it-happens news briefs behind pay walls. But newspapers, he says, should be able to charge for the sort of contextual and analytical journalism that only they can provide.

The trouble with that idea, of course, is that diminished newspapers are no longer capable of providing the sort of depth they once did. They do not have the staff to produce insightful coverage on the national and international issues of most interest to the average reader. And even putting the local stuff in context has proved challenging of late.

But John Hill, a ProJo reporter who is president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, says the paper's continued dominance in the local media market makes a pay wall more viable here than elsewhere. "I think the Journal, in Rhode Island, is better positioned than maybe any other paper in the country," he says.

The paper will have to get the details right though, he says.

ProJo publisher Howard G. Sutton did not return a call for comment, in keeping with the paper's long-standing policy of rebuffing Phoenix inquiries. But he suggested, in the paper's own story on the subject, that the Journal would be pursuing some sort of "paid/free" hybrid with the "more detailed news and information regarding events in the State of Rhode Island" landing behind the pay wall.

Subscribers to the print edition would probably get free access to the Web site, he said, those with a weekend-only subscription would pay a nominal fee, and non-subscribers would pay a higher fee.

Sutton suggested that the model would be designed, in large part, to stem plummeting circulation for the print edition. But finding the right price point for that strategy could prove difficult.

Charging a substantial premium could scare off readers altogether. And keeping costs low might not help much either. The Boston Consulting Group survey found readers willing to pay an average of just $3 per month to access news on their computers or cell phones. And that sort of fee would neither send readers scurrying back to the print editions nor shore up the finances of the newspaper in any substantial way.

Newspaper publishers are searching desperately for a way to save their business. But a pay wall, short or tall, may not prove much of an impediment to the march of the marketplace.

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