It is sometimes hard to tell whether the advocates of newspaper paywalls are part of a philosophy of publishing or a cult. People who espouse a philosophy usually do so after weighing the facts, those part of a cult don't want to hear from naysayers.
That is why it is possible for two media observers to look at the performance of The New York Times since the launch of their paywall and come to two different conclusions: some see good circulation revenue growth and see this as a way to replace declining ad revenue; others say that circulation revenue is only 2 percent higher this year than it was in 2010, hardly spectacular performance, while ad revenue is, indeed, tanking. What's the conclusion? It depends on your perspective – I prefer to say that the solution hasn't been found yet, despite the launching of paywalls, but I remain open to the concept.
In Canada, the newspaper drama is being played out, too. Postmedia Network started rolling out its paywalls to its iPad apps late last year, with papers like The Vancouver Sun among the first to start charging for unlimited access to content in their iPad editions.
Today the paper released updates for more papers including The Windsor Star, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal.
"In-app subscription options (iPad only): In order to continue our investment in the quality and depth of our award-winning journalism and offer you the features and functions you want from our application, we are now charging for unlimited access to The Windsor Star iPad application," reads the new app description.
In the U.S. App Store one won't find many reviews written on these Canadian newspaper apps, of course, so I changed stores to see what readers have to say about the change. They aren't happy.
The most recent reviews inside the Canadian App Store for The Vancouver Sun are universally negative – but the reasons vary.
The biggest complaint from readers involves pop-up ads, an advertising trend that seems to be returning. We're not talking about one or two reviews, but lots of them complaining about pop-up ads.
Then there are the usual complaints about declining content quality. In the case of the iPad edition, though, the complaints center around the fact that the apps take RSS feeds from the website of the newspaper, and not all the feeds, and simply reformats them for the iPad. I've never liked these types of newspaper iPad editions as they are merely mirroring the website rather than truly building a tablet edition. The solution to the web on tablets is... the web, not an app. (More on this in a second.)
As a result, most newspapers could not charge for their iPad editions until they have built a paywall for their website. Once that paywall had gone up they really have no choice but to launch a paywall for the iPad edition, as well.
Readers of The Vancouver Sun are not the only ones complaining – The Province rolled out its paywalled iPad edition at the same time and readers have reacted negatively, too – but it is hard to tell if the price is the problem or the buggy apps. That is why those Postmedia Network newspaper apps that already have paywalls have updated their apps, too – it fix some bugs. We'll see if the cries of readers are muted, or if the paywall itself now becomes the major complaint.
One trend among newspaper publishers, and media gurus of the digital first variety, is that they seem to have a hard part seeing differences between digital publishing platforms. While you could lay a magazine and newspaper on their desks and they would easily differentiate the two products, doing so with digital media seems a difficult challenge for them. For far too many newspaper publishing pros digital means the web, and anything else – mobile or tablets, for instance – are simply variations of the web.
That is why I so dislike many newspaper iPad apps, they really are just RSS feed readers. Those moving in a different direction, such as The Washington Post, are combining web products with reformatted replicas of their print editions. For me, the reformatted replicas are actually the most interesting product and the only worth paying for. (See the post on the WaPo's app update here.)
Launching new digital products that re-imagine the medium remains elusive, and until a new generation of newspaper execs take over, or some pureplay digital media pros move into the space, I'm afraid we will continue to see legacy newspaper titles struggle with all things digital.