By Joey Coleman
Published September 14, 2011
Please note there are disclosures at the end of this post.
The Hamilton Spectator is joining the growing list of local newspaper websites charging for online access to their news content. The change was announced yesterday morning on thespec.com by managing editor Howard Elliott:
Effective this week, thespec.com is adopting a metered model.
This means that each spec.com user may view a certain number of content pages in a given month, and upon reaching that limit, will be asked to purchase a monthly subscription for digital access. Print subscribers can purchase full digital access for $2.95 monthly. The price for non-subscribers is $6.95 monthly.
To begin with, we are setting that limit at 35, which means that users can view up to that number of articles per month and will then be asked to subscribe.
The Spectator is the first Torstar daily to experiment with erecting a paywall and one of the first major Canadian dailies to do so. This experiment will be closely watched across North America.
Google's paywall is a new entrant to the landscape and only used by a handful of publications at present. Torstar has chosen Press+, joining the majority of online news paywalls in using that system.
I emailed Spectator managing editor Howard Elliott about the paywall yesterday morning. He promptly responded to my email with honest answers.
Mr. Elliott confirmed that access to thespec.com will be a monthly charge of $2.95 for print subscribers and $6.95 for non-subscribers.
He could not confirm if there would be exceptions to the 35-pageview limit for content arrived at via social media links. Spectator blogs are excluded from the meter and "special reports such as Code Red and other utility content will be exempt."
Similar to the New York Times, the paywall may be suspended during major events.
Asked what the goals for the pay meter are, Mr. Elliott responded:
To generate a small revenue stream from web traffic. We currently have more traffic than we can monetize through advertising and other strategies, such as migration to verticals. The limits we have in mind at present may change going forward.
The Spectator is charging for online content without increasing the value of that content. At the same time, they've forced their print subscribers to start paying twice if they also want to read the content online.
As one print subscriber tweeted yesterday morning:
@LarryDiIanni Larry Di Ianni
Having to pay to view Spec online will force some of us to choose btwn subscription or online service. Won't do both!
When a former mayor of Hamilton in his early 60s is openly musing about cancelling his print subscription because of the additional cost of accessing thespec.com, Torstar should stop and take notice.
The threat of cancelling a subscription is tossed around by readers of all publications (I received them often when writing for Maclean's and The Globe and Mail) and normally can be read purely as hyperbole.
Coming from Larry Di Ianni, a man in one of the Spectator's prime target demographics, it cannot be ignored.
My grandmother is a heavy user of thespec.com - she wants news now - and a loyal Spectator subscriber who gave subscriptions to the paper as gifts to me a child. I know she'll be none too impressed with the latest cost increase for the newspaper.
There is a point of no return. People get less content at a higher cost from the Spectator than they used to. I remember spending a great deal of time reading the paper every day - even a decade ago. Today, I take maybe five minutes to read the local section.
This appears to be another instance of the paper increasing prices without a correlating improvement in content or quality. In fact, this week's print redesign comes with up to 15 percent fewer words in articles.
I am convinced a better revenue model is needed for high quality journalism.
The Spectator is one of only a handful of organizations producing original news content in Hamilton and its competitors shamelessly reuse Spectator content instead of going out and finding news stories.
Without the Spectator, the news void in Hamilton would be noticeable. With fewer staff than a year ago, the Spectator needs to find funds to revitalize itself and produce the kinds of interactive informative web content that people are starting to expect from news organizations.
Original content costs money. That money must come from somewhere. It's a chicken/egg problem: which will come first, the high quality content needed to generate revenue or the revenue to produce high quality content?
The metered paywall is part of that model and some form of payment from the news customer is a preferable revenue source than a continuing loss of editorial independence by an over-reliance on government and government-sector advertising.
A paywall could serve to fund thespec.com, but the metered paywall proposed by the Spectator is fatally flawed - it's asking for those who already finance the paper as print subscribers to dig deeper and pay an extra $2.95/month to use the website beyond the "free" 35 pageviews.
The paper needs to look at new revenue streams other than digging deeper into the pockets of their most loyal readers.
I've worked at the Spectator, including four months in-house on the website. I shattered their online traffic records with live coverage of Hamilton City Council debating the Pan Am Stadium last August, and I know there is a huge opportunity for the paper to monetize its online content.
41,192 people watched the online stream of Hamilton City Council on August 10th, but thespec.com did not serve one video ad that day. It was their biggest day of traffic and there was no ability to make money (beyond banner ads on thespec.com) from having nearly 10 percent of the local population viewing the stream.
A year later, as far as I know, thespec.com still doesn't have a video revenue plan.
Nor is thespec.com a go-to place for reference data, an evergreen revenue opportunity. The Chicago Tribune is a good example of reference information making money.
Paywalls should convert web readers into subscribers, not vice-versa. The Spectator cannot afford to lose any print editions to the web - print is and will remain where the money is made in journalism.
Most newspaper paywalls reward print subscribers with "free" web access. In fact, U.S. newspapers are converting web readers into print subscribers by offering Sunday newspaper subscriptions at rates below web-only access.
Eventually, the daily print edition on dead trees will be a museum relic. The weekend paper will expand and flourish - converting young people to weekly subscribers is the future revenue model. thespec.com is missing this opportunity.
The Press+ paywall is not bulletproof. The MinnPost provides a great summary of the shortcomings of the platform that allow readers with basic levels of web-savvy to bypass the paywall completely.
It's entirely possible that more good-news surprises are in-store. This could be the beginning of a strong web strategy for thespec.com.
Today's implementation of the paywall is the first step in something. The paywall is not going away, this is Torstar's beachhead. The complaints of a few, or even many, will not result in a rollback of the project. Let's hope Torstar will invest the resources to make thespec.com worthy of being behind a paywall.
The news must be paid for and unless we're willing to give over our private information to thespec.com in the same way we give everything to Facebook, we're going to have to pay in hard currency.
For the non-subscribers to the Spectator, the time has come to pay if you want high quality content. $6.95/mth is not much to fund original journalism. Think of it as insurance against rampant government corruption.
The free ride must come to an end. If one does not want to pay for content, it is true there are alternative websites to go looking for news. If those alternatives can produce high-quality consistent journalism, then the new revenue model for journalism is found.
Disclosure: I've worked for the Hamilton Spectator as a freelance web editor during the past year. I'll likely continue to freelance with them in the future. The views expressed are solely my own and not influenced by the Spectator. The paper applies no pressure upon my writing. I've been critical of them in the past and they continue to hire me for freelance work.
This article was first published on Joey's website.