Is Rhode Island a paywall mecca?

As the ProJo Turns
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 17, 2011


Media analysts say Rhode Island could be especially fertile ground for a declining newspaper industry's primary survival strategy — charging readers for access to its heretofore free web sites.

This spring, Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University summed up the argument as follows: in a small media market like Rhody, with little in the way of free on-line alternatives to the major newspapers, readers might be more willing to pay for the news.

And paying for the news, in this context, does not just mean forking over cash for access to, say, the Providence Journal's web site,

No, the so-called "paywall" strategy is designed, in no small part, to drive readers back to the more profitable paper-and-ink version of the newspaper.

Ken Doctor, media analyst and author of Newsonomics: Twelve Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, says the early evidence suggests paywalls have had moderate success in this department.

Newspapers that have begun charging for web access in recent months appear to be slowing the decline in print circulation — if not reversing the trend.

They are, in other words, mounting a moderately effective defense, he says. The paywalls' offensive aims — generating more revenue from on-line operations — seem largely unrealized to date.

So, could Rhode Island expect to do any better?, I ask. Yes, he suggests, at least in the near term. The relative lack of competition for local papers should make a difference.

Indeed, it might help to explain why the Newport Daily News reported an uptick of about 10 percent in single-copy sales of its paper product after putting up a paywall two years ago.

Daily News publisher William Lucey III told researchers at Columbia University's Journalism School earlier this year that, with the economy improving, "print is coming back.

"February [2011] was up 35 percent over last year" in ad sales, he said.

But, Doctor cautions, if charging for web access might shore up print readership for a 50-plus crowd with a long-running newspaper habit, the future is still in the web. And as microtargeted advertising grows more and more sophisticated, monopoly newspapers like the Journal, which is set to unveil a paywall of its own in the not-too-distant future, are of ever-diminishing value.

Local retailers, after all, can reach Rhode Islanders on, the Huffington Post and thousands of other sites now; they don't need the Journal like they once did.

But if the mechanics of on-line advertising are a problem, there is, for this media critic, another equally vexing question: once the paywall goes up, will Rhode Islanders — even with few other options for local news — be willing to stick with a paper of such diminished quality?

The Journal, like so many papers around the country, has cut staff and sharply scaled back its geographical reach and journalistic ambition. And while old-media stalwarts elsewhere have made efforts to innovate for the new era — launching expansive blogospheres and Groupon-style deals programs — the Journal hasn't done much beyond the addition of its spunky PolitiFact operation.

A paywall has the potential to work better here than elsewhere. But there has to be something compelling to pay for.

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