Yet Another Newspaper Paywall Goes Bust: SF Chronicle Gives Up After Just Four Months

from the not-the-panacea-you've-been-expecting dept

I know that within newspaper circles it's become popular to claim that we've now entered the era of the paywall. Paywall supporters love to point to the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal -- along with claims from various paywall companies that more and more newspapers are moving over to such a model. However, we've been hearing plenty of stories suggesting that for most every newspaper that isn't a major national or international brand, the paywalls are looking like dismal failures. Very, very, very few (at times, shockingly few) people are signing up, and by setting up the paywall, they're actually losing a fair number of online visitors. This isn't a surprise. As we've been arguing for years, a paywall is the exact wrong strategy for most newspapers, since the real business they're in is building a community and then selling that community's attention. Yet, a paywall makes it much, much harder to build a community, first by putting up a tollbooth, and then making it nearly impossible for readers to share the news and bring others into that community.

So it should come as little surprise that the SF Chronicle here in San Francisco has apparently killed its paywall after just four months. The quickness with which it's been pulled certainly suggests that the number of signups was appallingly low and someone finally did the math and realized what a colossal disaster this was going to be. For your typical metro or regional newspaper, all a paywall really does is open up a huge market for online competitors. It looks like the Chronicle found that out the hard way.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    OldGeezer (profile), Aug 14th, 2013 @ 8:32pm

    My hometown paper, The Wichita Eagle tried to go paywall a few months ago but you could get past it by just hitting escape as the page loaded. This only lasted a about a month and it looks like they also gave up on it.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 14th, 2013 @ 8:49pm

    Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

    The paywall is located at blue boxes and convenience store counters. Buck seventy-five a pop. -- OH, you're talking ONLINE where all the freeloaders are. Never mind.

    Mike Masnick on Techdirt: "a bogus, laughable group that is spreading ideas that would do massive harm to the internet based on a near total ignorance of how things work."

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Aug 14th, 2013 @ 9:42pm

      Re: Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

      You don't know what a paywall is.

       

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      PaulT (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 12:11am

      Re: Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

      Did bob lend you his dictionary? because your definitions of words are just as false.

      "OH, you're talking ONLINE where all the freeloaders are"

      Funny, my home town has 4 separate physical newspapers that cost nothing to obtain, some of which are delivered to every home, yet some have been running for decades. Does that mean everyone in that town is a freeloader?

      --------------------

      ootb on Techdirt: "I'm a slimy, immoral liar whose insane obsession with a single individual won't stop me from stooping to slander and libel because the site's owner has too many morals to ban such people ;lest he also interrupt free speech".

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 12:56am

        Re: Re: Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

        "Does that mean everyone in that town is a freeloader?"

        Everyone in London must be too. All the commuters read Metro in the morning and the evening standard in the evening which are freely distributed at all rail and underground stations, a whole city of freeloaders!

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 1:26am

          Re: Re: Re: Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

          One of those paper is actually, y'know, profitable, to boot.

           

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      Josef Anvil (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 3:59am

      Re: Where all the freeloaders are

      I love when people talk about all the freeloaders online.

      It's as if online is some magical place where there is an entirely different population of humans.

       

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        PaulT (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 6:02am

        Re: Re: Where all the freeloaders are

        My favourite part is where they use a free web browser to communicate with a server running free software over a free protocol in order to open a free website, read a free story and post comments there for free... in order to whine about freeloaders and how nothing would every get made if it weren't paid for upfront.

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 5:50am

      Re: Really? The local paper has a paywall and does just fine!

      If that 'paywall' is working for the newspapers, then I guess there isn't a problem, is there?

      But it's not, because other (arguably better) sources for news and information are now available with a near zero distribution cost.

      If there's no market for a product or service, then there's no market for it. It's sad, but things change.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 14th, 2013 @ 10:11pm

    Oh well, back to the usual troll practices for ootb. Have another report vote for your off topic efforts.
    -----------

    I no longer depend on MSM news reports much anymore. I've interest in real news, not human interest stories, not dumb crook news, not celebrity fodder, and not propaganda feeds from the government.

    Since MSM no longer does real investigative reporting which tended to keep politicians honest, the lack of exposure is what in part that has led us to today's wonderful circumstances as very few politicians actually have to face the music for their dirty deeds.

    So there's not much interest on my end of supporting any news outlet I don't live near by paying for subscription to news I have no use for.

    Easier to go on line and get not day old news but up-to-the-minute news. Not having to pay for it is just a plus. Most of the time when I see paywall, it's easy to leave behind. That's what they make search engines for. (please put some blinders on ootb before he sees that as Google)

     

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    sehlat (profile), Aug 14th, 2013 @ 10:18pm

    A Famous Publisher Once Commented On This

    Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.

    Benjamin Franklin

     

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    DanMitchell (profile), Aug 14th, 2013 @ 10:27pm

    Well, you know, newspapers have to do something, and I'm not sure why everyone thinks it's so dumb to try paywalls. They have worked in some instances, and they might yet work in some others. It doesn't look good in general, but neither do the revenue prospects for online ads. So what would you suggest be done to ensure local and regional coverage that's at least as good as it was about 15 years ago? A relatively (at least) healthy, robust, full-time, professional press that we need for democracy to function?

    >>all a paywall really does is open up a huge market for online competitors

    Well, that would be great, actually. But has it happened anywhere? There are some cities with some decent upstarts (New Orleans, San Diego, Austin, etc.). Most are nonprofits, and most are understaffed and struggling (though often doing great work). I don't know offhand of any that have launched in reaction to a local paper erecting a paywall, but I'm happy to be enlightened.

    Frankly, I think any story about this problem, or even brief post like this, has to acknowledge that financing quality, newspaper-like local news coverage is an immense challenge and that online ad revenues aren't sufficient to the task. The lack of such an acknowledgement implies a belief that online ads are the answer, but they're clearly not.

     

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      Todd Knarr (profile), Aug 14th, 2013 @ 10:36pm

      Re:

      Mostly the local papers would need to stop concentrating on reprinting the wire-service stories that readers can get from any of a hundred sources.

      For instance, the sexual-harassment accusations allegations against San Diego's mayor. You want to sell papers in San Diego, I'm sure there's plenty of dirt there on both sides. Filner himself strikes me as a used-car salesman, but a significant chunk of the support on the other side comes from his political opponents. And the real dirt's likely to turn up not from looking at lobbyists and campaign donations, but from finding out who they hang out with and what those people have to say about them. That's the kind of stuff the local reporters would be ideal for, something the wire services can't offer. Yet the local papers are content to reprint the same generic AP wire stories. And they wonder why nobody reads them.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Aug 14th, 2013 @ 10:37pm

      Re:

      With the Internet, we are no longer limited by what the local or regional news media tells us. I don't have to rely on my local newspaper or news channel to tell me what's going on in the Middle East or China when I can just hop onto the Internet and get news reports from people who are actually there. There aren't any markets opening up in response to paywalls because they already exist. Companies like the NY Times and Wall Street Journal aren't just competing with local, regional or national news sources anymore, they're competing with sources worldwide. Setting up a paywall just closes off a potential consumer base. If I see a paywall, I don't think to myself "Oh no, how will I ever read the news for free now", I just move onto one of the thousands of free sources that provide the same thing at no extra cost to me.

      Your last paragraph implies that these news companies are setting up paywalls just to break even, which is false. These are large profitable media enterprises whose goal is to maximize profits. That is the difference between now and then: the larger companies have no desire to actually provide quality reporting, just maximize their profits. That is where the true issue is, that you bring up in your first paragraph. A relatively healthy, robust, full-time, professional press that we need for democracy to function is one that is concerned with journalistic standards, not cutting costs and maximizing revenue for the benefit of their bottom line.

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 6:01am

      Re:

      So what would you suggest be done to ensure local and regional coverage that's at least as good as it was about 15 years ago?


      In the two cities I live in, nothing. The best sources of local and regional news are three newspapers that have been operating for over 20 years. They've always been distributed for free.

      A relatively (at least) healthy, robust, full-time, professional press that we need for democracy to function?


      In general, we haven't had a healthy, robust, trustworthy professional press for a very long time. That has nothing to do with the internet -- the press started dying well before the internet was a viable source of news.

       

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    paperboy, Aug 14th, 2013 @ 11:20pm

    Paywalls can work

    if you can charge it as a business expense. but for non-'professional' press that is not an option.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 2:52am

    now they have 'pulled the paywall', the first questions i would want answering, if i were on the board, is who thought this idea was a good one in the first place and then who made the decision to 'go with it'?

     

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    Marak, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 3:19am

    Ootb, do need another hug mate? Its ok, im man enough to realise when another man needs a hug. Come here big fella. *Hug*

    OT:

    not surprised at all, google news links me to a lot and if the articles are good, ill disable adblock for their site.

     

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    The Real Michael, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 4:31am

    Why put up a paywall in the first place? Are they providing the public with a product or unique service which noone else provides? The answer, of course, is no. They're printing articles, with maybe a couple pictures and/or video embedded. Even bloggers know how to do as much.

    Funny how whenever I click on a news article, I tend to skip over the article itself and go right to the comments section.

     

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      Marak, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 4:45am

      Response to: The Real Michael on Aug 15th, 2013 @ 4:31am

      Like me do you avoid news sites without comments?

      Its like their trying to avoid the dirty unwashed masses commenting....

      Nice to know im not the only one though.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 6:53am

        Re: Response to: The Real Michael on Aug 15th, 2013 @ 4:31am

        2 probably nice, smart, educated people, who don't read the articles before heading to the comments section and possibly commenting or possibly reading comments of those who may also not have read the article.

        That comes over as a tad disturbing.

        New techdirt experiment, just put up some headlines and either have no article at all, or have the body be something unrelated like a review of a fitted kitchen and let's see how much if any effect that has on the comments section.

         

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          That One Guy (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 7:22am

          Re: Re: Response to: The Real Michael on Aug 15th, 2013 @ 4:31am

          Would be pretty hilarious for the couple of trolls who post here who have flat out admitted that they don't read the articles before posting.

          'I don't know why you're on your pro-NSA rant again, the article was about parakeets.'
          'What? No it isn't, look, it says right in the title 'New NSA survielence plan exposed', it was an article on the NSA!'
          'Oh that was just because it sounded interesting, the article itself was about different breeds of parakeets and plumage colors.'

           

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    psy (profile), Aug 15th, 2013 @ 5:24am

    Parrot MSM

    Someone already mentioned in here, if a newspaper wants to go ahead and do some proper investigative reporting and bring some real dirt and details into it then it might be worth it. But what we have here is the parrot media that is slanted, biased and pushing the governments agenda or deflecting from its failures.

     

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    Watching Stupid, Aug 15th, 2013 @ 1:32pm

    In my neck of the woods Rupert 'The Jackass' Murdoch and his minions have decided to put the free delivered community paper which ends up in the gutter more than in the homes of readers, behind a paywall. The decision to put it with the regional paper & some Fox Sports and then charge for it is pure Murdoch DNA (bundling stuff you want with stuff you don't). As there is no other local metro or state newspapers to keep them in check, Murdoch does what he likes and a big FU to the complainers. Heck they even had the cheek to say in full page ads that this is what we were asking for, WTF!
    Now it's not a total paywall, in that you can read 2 articles before being asked to pay for more views, however shutting the browser and using the antivirus etc program to clean the PC of all history allows you to go back for 2 more stories. Otherwise there wouldn't be anyone bothering to go to the site at all.
    Not that there is much in the way of meaningful exclusive content to view anyway, so I get most of my news from the evil (in Rupert's eyes) state sponsored sites such as the BBC instead.
    Expecting people to pay for content that can be found elsewhere depends on your customers being either incredibly stupid and/or lazy, and when the competition is only a mouse click away it doesn't take much to bypass the site entirely.
    One good thing to come out of all this is that the paid-for right wing drivel known as Opinion Pieces are being read by less and less viewers. Heck if I want to read political opinions from the left or right there are many sites all too willing to let me see it for free, otherwise how else will they get their points of view out to the wider world and get it changed for their benefit.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 16th, 2013 @ 12:20pm

    LATE thought: So sez the guy who puts part of this site behind paywall!

    Casual visitors may not notice, but Two-faced Mike has a paywall here! The gullible get "Insider Chat", their own icons, and I don't know what else.

    His notion is actually that paywalls he doesn't approve of don't work. And he never mentions the New York Times and others sucessfully continuing with paywall.

    This is yet another practical example of Mike saying one thing while doing another! That pattern, plus near complete lack of specifics from him on such basics as copyright*, makes me wonder just what his actual position is on everything!

    [* He's only been studying copyright for fifteen years, says it's too soon to take position; see link below:]

    So what is Mike's position on copyright? -- Try to guess from this!
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130121/14473121743/global-hackathons-prepared-to-carry-for ward-work-aaron-swartz.shtml#c377

     

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