Don't put Johnston Press on trial over their paywall experiment

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 1 December 2009

It is fashionable this week to write a blog post knocking Johnston Press for introducing paywalls on three of their local sites. I'm not going to do that, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the whole debate about the future funding of journalism contains a lot of assumptions and second-guessing. We assume paywalls won't work. We assume search engines, and Google in particular, will remain the dominant way-finding device of the Internet. Companies assert that in the future they might wall their content in, or sue aggregators, or try to overturn existing copyright case law.

Some of these assumptions may be right.

Personally I am sceptical about getting people to pay for "cat stuck up a tree" local journalism when you can get scanned cats, lolcats and cats in costume for free.

However, unlike anyone else in the industry, at the end of the three months Johnston Press will actually have real figures. They'll know that for a town with a population of x and with a print circulation of y, they can expect to sell z number of subscriptions through their current website.

Now z may turn out to be a lot less than they were expecting - and the user experience of buying one isn't going to help shift any - but coupling those numbers with an understanding of how much advertising they sold online and offline in the trial areas should allow them to plan for 2010/11 on the basis of some evidence, rather than just on a hunch.

There is a second reason I am not interested in knocking Johnston Press, and that is due to Internet testing culture.

For a long time net-heads like myself have criticised mainstream media outlets for not innovating, not being agile, not experimenting enough and being far too scared of failure on the web.

At the minute, Johnston Press have some sites giving away free ad-supported content, some sites have content snippets urging users to buy the paper, and some sites are charging a subscription for access. Essentially they are doing an A/B/C test of their entire business model online for three months. As someone who advocates user-testing at every stage of product development, how can I argue with that?

As I say, personally I'm unconvinced you can successfully put this type of content behind a paywall, but I'm not going to knock Johnston Press for giving it a trial.

Read more of my articles about local and hyperlocal news and the future of news

6 Comments

Another interesting source of information on paid for access to news papers online might be www.irishnews.com. It has been charging for access to stories (beyond headline and first paragraph) and archive since its launch (some 10+ years ago). It’s not a site I visit often as I should, but just before writing this I checked it and see that now it is only available now through its own Reader. No access to any stories without paid for subscription. This is a new development.

I suspect that the Irish News has found paid for subscriptions to be an economically useful modal, but I’ve never come across any press coverage what they are doing.

You might be interested in following up. Of course Northern Ireland papers are not all that interested in stories about cats.

Regional press not interested in cats! I beg to differ - I offer a Google search for site:www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk cats as evidence for a start ;-)

Fantastic! I bow (wow-wow) to your research skills!

Interesting points.

As a developer I visited a few JP sites today to see how they were doing the trial.

I found the paywall sites very unfriendly looking and I can imagine many users felt the same, but as you say if they find hard evidence that people will pay for their news then fair play to them.

The content snippet method I thought was absolutely awful and I hate it when papers do this.

If all they can put on the site is "Something happened" go and buy a paper, they may as well not bother.

For football and sports news it also makes no sense, people will just turn to SKY.

If this ends up as the future of the industry it would be putting our heads in the sand to an alarming degree.

Why would people return to a website (and the associated motors, jobs, cars and property pages) to read a snippet of information saying that they need to visit their newagents?

Totally pointless, and if it was adopted as a model I fear for the online classified income that the industry does have.

Someone else would quite happily snap up the unemployed journalists (of which there are many) make some decent content for a site and direct people to their own platforms.

I would hate it if newspapers retreated from Digital journalism and all the people that have built up skills over the years were turned back to newspaper production or made redundant, it would be a real waste.

Also, when I visited the Ripley newspaper I think that their experiment is damaged by the fact that Northcliffe have a hyperlocal Ripley site on the Derby Evening Telegraph.

Why visit a weekly site that you have to pay for when a daily one is operating that is free?

Also what happens if a significant hyperlocal site was started up in competition. These are factors they cannot put into the trial.

I'm sure they would happily fill the gap that the Ripley newspaper vacated and they would probably do a better job.

I found it's unacceptable why would we pay for accessing its websites

Sure give it a trial ,, but cats behind a paywall?? Seriously?

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