Sunday, May 05, 2019

Paywall bad news

Newspapers are struggling to survive nearly everywhere. How they deal with the challenges varies, and among the solutions are paywalls, membership schemes, donations, and others. The New Zealand Herald has just launched a paywall, and not very well. There’s no compelling reason to subscribe to their “premium” service, and I won’t be doing so—yet.

The New Zealand Herald first tried a paywall a few years ago, and it failed miserably. The main problem was that they were the only one in New Zealand, and people could get the same news many other places for free, so the only thing they offered that couldn’t be seen elsewhere were their columnists, and, as I said at the time, “they’re just not that good”. Okay, that was a bit snotty, but nevertheless true: Many were grumpy, curmudgeonly, right-wing, irrelevant, or some combination of those. Sure, some people, probably the same ones who ring up talkback radio to whine about something or other, may have appreciated those, um, attributes, but neither I nor anyone I knew shared that viewpoint.

In more recent years the paper again started talking about launching a new paywall, but never quite seemed ready to do it, probably in part because, once again, they’d be the only major mainstream news site in New Zealand doing it.

In recent months, the talk started becoming more frequent, and then they started labelling content on their website as “Premium”, apparently to let people know what they’d be getting access to as subscribers—and what they’d lose access to if they weren’t. Unfortunately, that wasn’t obvious so I avoided everything marked “Premium” assuming one had to pay to see it.

Still, what they were showing were mostly in-depth journalism and investigations which was at least promising. Meanwhile, the rest of their home page included clickbait, often sourced from overseas papers, including the reprehensible Daily Mail in the UK.

I am told—because I didn’t see it myself—that when the new paywall launched, they had a click-baity story about Prince Harry and Meghan behind the paywall—not exactly the sort of thing that would entice someone who wants serious journalism. That’s the first thing they’ll need to fix: They can’t put clickbait behind their paywall if they want to be taken seriously.

The second thing is that they’ll need to prove that the money raised will actually go to journalism, and not just into the pockets of shareholders, here and overseas. So far, it seems that most people don’t think it’ll happen, and this is just about money for shareholders. They’ll need to make a big deal about hiring journalists, if indeed they do so.

Much of their content, they tell us, is still free, but that includes the stuff designed to promote radio personalities and programmes on the Herald’s NZME sibling radio stations. By and large, these “columnists” are absolutely terrible, promoting especially privileged and self-centred rightwing drivel. Still, at least they’re not behind the paywall at the moment, because that would be a strong disincentive to subscribe.

Their biggest problem is that their digital subscription rate (see graphic above) is way too high. At $5 per week, it works out to $260 per year, though if someone makes one annual payment it’s $199. They’re offering a special rate of $2.50 per week for the first 8 weeks, after which it goes up to the full rate.

For comparison, The Washington Post digital subscription is $100 per year, which is about NZ$150 (the Post currently has a promotion of $25 for the first year, which is NZ$37.60). The New York Times is currently $1 a week for a year (US$52 is NZ$78.13). Which means that a new subscriber could get both the Post and the NYT for not much more than half the price of the cheapest NZ Herald digital subscription. I know which option that I would choose.

Increasingly, the Herald has not been a good paper to read. Many of their articles have a strong rightward lean, either in tone or focus (or both), and many of the stories have been in the, “okay, but why is this ‘news’?” category. They haven’t done as much in-depth or investigative journalism as they used to, and they rely too much on foreign papers—like the Post, for example, and I already subscribe to the entire paper, not just what the NZ Herald wants to show me.

Their only drawcard is that they’re New Zealand-based and cover New Zealand stories. But the same thing can be said of any number of other news sites here in New Zealand that don’t have a paywall. If they expect people to pay for news they can get for free elsewhere, then the Herald will have to lift its game and offer news and features that people can’t get for free elsewhere. That may sound harsh or unfair, particularly to hard-working and overstretched journalists, but it is reality. In the news business as with every other business, the consumer is king.

When I first looked at overseas digital newspaper subscriptions in 2015, neither the NYT nor the Post were there yet (back then, the NYT had a pricing plans based on device rather than content). Now, they’ve become much more customer-focused, so much so that the Post won my business in July of last year. If the NZ Herald wants to make their paywall work, they’re going to have to learn from their examples.

I didn't like the NZ Herald we’ve had over the past few years, and I certainly wouldn’t pay to subscribe to that. But if they can put up good, solid journalism without click-bait or shallow columns by radio personalities, and if they can offer it at a much more sensible price—and reinvest that money into journalism—then people like me could be tempted in. That won’t happen right now, and probably not for a while, if ever. The jury’s still out.

Whether the new paywall will actually work or it will fail like the last one did will depend entirely on how the paper adapts to customer expectations and needs, and how much emphasis it places on content that’s worth subscribing to. The NYT learned and adapted, and so did the Post. The NZ Herald can certainly do the same—IF they want to. But, that’s news for the future.

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