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Newspapers and an online strategy that doesn’t always pay

For a news junkie like me these are the best of times. For newspapers, especially small town ones, these are times filled with apprehension and opportunity. And it is all because of technology and the Internet.

Today, people in rural communities and smaller towns, especially those that lack affordable high-speed Internet access, will most likely be talking about what was published in the local newspaper. It will be news about people they know, local high school sports and feature stories about local people doing relatively ordinary things. They will, as usual, feel connected to the newspaper because the television news they see is about statewide issues, national issues or events in other towns. They will hold that newspaper in their hands. Most like, they also know the editor personally.

Today, some people in larger cities will be talking about their local newspaper. They will say that it is a shame that it has gotten smaller, that it contains less local news than in the past and that it is a shame that people are being laid off. They wonder how weekly alternatives seem to be able to make it by putting out free editions. Others will be talking about the online edition, and its advantages and disadvantages.

The newspaper industry is undergoing a huge metamorphosis because of the Internet and technology. As print subscriber numbers go down and advertiser dollars shrink, the online edition of the traditional newspaper is being built, shaped and refined daily. Strategies abound on how newspapers can make money in this new environment.  There are emerging products such as The Daily for the iPad, personalized online sites where readers can aggregate their own news, e-newsletters, text messages, and on it goes.

Although news personalization can be really useful, one may miss valuable news by not reading an entire newspaper. I find that I am almost always surprised or intrigued by a story that I would not have included in my so-called personal newspaper.

In this ever-changing environment I would like to offer my perspective as one who reads a lot of newspapers, specifically the strategy of requiring online visitors to the newspaper website to become print subscribers before being allowed to view an article. My perspective is that of someone in the economic/community development business.

In my role as an economic/community developer and a business columnist I often tweet and blog about articles related to that subject. I also publish a regular e-newsletter to just under 1,000 people who would be classified as community leaders. I generally link to more positive newspaper stories than negative ones, especially when it comes to announcing new businesses. Doing so, spotlights that business as well as the newspaper and the community. A few newspapers now are requiring print or paid online subscriptions to view the entire article that was linked to. Some require a name and e-mail address only. I think that is a mistake or at least three reasons. First, people like me are not going to mention the community or provide the link to their subscribers and e-mail recipients. That causes a missed promotional opportunity for the community, the newspaper and the business. Second, it just plain makes the newspaper look bad, especially when almost all other online editions are free. And when the local newspaper looks bad the community looks bad. The newspaper – and its online edition – is a reflection of the community. Third, the newspaper is missing an income opportunity in the belief that it is creating an income opportunity. Ads can be placed on the sidebar beside the newspaper article, allowing the newspaper to receive income from click-throughs, while at the same time charging local advertisers for space on the website.

Allow me to give you a specific example. I went to a local newspaper’s website and discovered that a local company had been named to a national magazine’s list of best companies. I clicked on the link only to be informed that the article could only be viewed by print or online subscribers to the newspaper. Having no desire to pay $6 for a 30-day subscription, I did not read the story. I did an online news search for the company, found the news article in the national magazine, and then made my links to that of the national magazine. The result is that my readers did not go to the local newspaper’s website to read the article, which, in my opinion, was a missed opportunity for the local newspaper.

Each local newspaper must evaluate the pros and cons of so-called free online editions. I realize that there is really no such thing as a free online edition of anything. Somebody pays. Nevertheless, the evaluation to be made is whether there is more income from display ads on the website or paid online subscriptions. My guess is that unlike national newspapers, industry newspapers and magazines and specialized publications there will be little demand for paid subscriptions to online local newspapers. It is, of course, different for every newspaper, but local newspapers need not look for links from this writer to a website that requires a paid subscription to be viewed.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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