I recall once writing (although apparently it was before I migrated my blog to WordPress) that I was getting sick of the paywall debate and I wished someone would just pull the trigger and put up a hard paywall so we could get actual data and stop debating what might or might not happen. You know how people always say, “Be careful what you wish for …”? It seems I’m going to soon find out firsthand what a hard paywall does. As of April 1, actually.
While I have long been philosophically opposed to the idea of a paywall — with a possible exception made for metered paywalls — the early weeks of my tenure at the Lenoir News-Topic have weakened my resolve on the issue. I am told repeatedly that there is a noticeable drop in single-copy sales if the day’s big news goes up on the web before most people begin work. The circulation department reports that an increasing number of subscribers who refuse to renew their subscriptions say the reason is they can get it online for free.
Now, obviously we are not talking about a straight line. Even if you hold on to your circulation, it doesn’t mean larger advertisers won’t stop shifting more of their money out of newspapers, so you can hold or build circulation and wind up with less revenue. And although people are telling our circulation department that they won’t renew because they can get the news online, I’m not at all convinced they mean they are using our website. Our site, frankly, sucks. It sucks hard. It will give you a hickey if you use it too much. That is gradually being rectified, but the staff is so small that the progress is halting and low-priority.
But as of April 1, we’ll start to get answers. Maybe subscription renewals will climb, or at least level off. Maybe people will start to tell us all the things that are missing from our site, which will prompt a discussion on the resources needed to get that done every day. I somehow doubt people will say that. I think they will continue saying they are getting their news online for free, even though they will not be able to get our site for free.
But at least we’ll have our answer, the one I have wished for. I hope I won’t again be thinking I should have been more careful what I wished for.