Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Modesto Bee launches its own metered pay wall, but can't come up with an original reason for doing so

The first line of publisher Eric Johnson's column on the Modesto Bee website "There is no doubt in my mind that what The Modesto Bee provides to our community has value." After that you pretty much know what will follow. It is like the employee who enters your office and asks "do you value my work here?" What will follow is inevitably a call for money.

And so it is at the McClatchy daily newspaper in California's Central Valley, the publisher wants their readers to pay up and so up goes the chain's first pay wall (or "paywall", I still can't figure out which way it should appear).
My own views on pay walls are clear and consistent, although a bit fuzzy: 1) pay walls have the best chance of succeeding when the newspaper provides valuable financial news, examples being the WSJ or Financial Times; 2) local news is becoming a commodity, and unless you are vastly superior to the competition – emphasis on "vastly" – a pay wall will only drive away readers; 3) Internet companies do best online when they provide free services, such as search or email, the track record of those trying to be the exception to this rule is not good; 4) experimentation is good so go ahead if you must, but if forced to bet my own money I would be betting against you; and finally 5) metered pay walls are often so porous that all the other rules can be thrown out except #1.

"I have worked in digital publishing for 15 years. In all of that time, especially early in its life cycle, the culture of the Internet was based on the concept of easily accessible, free information. Mainstream organizations that sought to charge for access were often criticized and condemned for their actions," Johnson continued in his post.

But then Johnson goes on to say that other papers are putting up pay walls and, of course, mentions the WSJ and NYT. But he also says smaller papers are starting to do the same, though clearly those papers would not have done so had the big boys kept their websites open.

But the Modesto Bee now has its pay wall, which started on Tuesday, and the details of the plan should be familiar by now: print subscribers get a free pass, "casual visitors" won't pay either because of the looseness of the plan, leaving those who frequent the site more often to pay – in this dase $5 per month, or $50 per year.

What is ironic about these newspaper pay walls is that at the same time they are erecting barriers to entry they are launching web features more like the Internet pure plays. These daily deals that the Boston Globe, NYT and even the Modesto Bee are creating are completely dependent on traffic and mass penetration of the market. And though I doubt putting up a pay wall will serious effect the success of these group buying efforts, I do think they reflect the fact that companies like McClatchy still have no real web strategy other than to get revenue where they can while cutting staff and resources following the reporting of their financial results.

In the case of the Modesto Bee, the paper doesn't even have an iPhone or Android mobile app yet, something that developers have noticed so have launched their own. The Modesto news app from Brighthouse Labs, which likes to flood the App Store with apps – they have 3816 worthless iPhone apps currently available –– is so bad that the company used screenshots from a Vancouver News app for its Modesto app description. It doesn't matter, no one has complained, no one has written a review, but I'm sure a couple made the mistake of paying the $1.99 to download the app.