You can't fight what your audience will support

If your typical day begins with coffee while perusing online newspaper, you may want to protect your credit card.

This is because as of March 2011, it will cost you up to $35 a month to peruse the New York Times. But the Times is not the only publication investing in an online paywall as an attempt to generate desperately needed revenue. Currently only a handful of news organizations charge for online content, including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and Newsday.

But is this a necessary evil for newspapers to survive or just a costly mistake that will increase popularity of free news sites? And is charging for newspapers a guaranteed way to increase viewership, revenue and advertisements?

Not at Newsday.

Long Island’s daily paper spent roughly $4 million to redesign and relaunch its site charging online readers $5 a week, or $260 a year, to get total access to news. In three months only 35 people signed up. Newsday’s free Web traffic nosedived, and advertising revenue decreased.

The $4 million that Newsday spent is chump change compared to the reported $40 million New York Times allocated to set up its new paywall.

A factor behind Newsday’s problem is the popularity of free news sites and blogs. In a major media market like Washington D.C. or New York City, a variety of newspapers cover the same geographic area and news. If the New York Times is charging for content but the New York Post is not, what is to say that the frequent former NYTimes.com reader won’t turn to the NYPost.com for free news?

Hundreds of news blogs like Drudge and Huffington Post populate their sites with breaking news and analysis. If online news consumers get stuck behind pay walls, they can search for articles from free news sources.

More traditional newspapers look to investigative stories from non-profit news organizations to publish at no cost. However, the same news story written by Texas Watchdog picked up by the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle is available free on TexasWatchdog.org. As more newspapers use this free content from non-profit journalists, papers that charge will increasingly overlap quality content with those that don’t.

A website charging news consumers is not only costly to the readers but to the newspapers. Newsday’s $4 million redesign has provided a mere $9,000 in revenue. Not many newspapers in this current environment that can risk losing millions of dollars. The current numbers are still out for the New York Times paywall but with $40 million spent, they are going to have to draw a significant audience to recoup their costs.

And let’s not forget that a March 2010 Project for Excellence in Journalism survey reported that 82% of people with favorite news sites said they’d find somewhere else free to find their news if they started asking for payments. Of the more than 2,000 people survey by Pew only 19% said that would pay for online news.

And although early indications are that the New York Times paywall is racking in the readers, a reported 100,000, how many of them joined when it was offered for a free subscription and how many are paying the lowest cost of readership? If half of their readers are reading for free or at a low cost, there is no way that they will break even on this money experiment.

With the majority of the audience unwilling to pay and readily available free options, why should the New York Times paywall be any more successful than the Newsday one? The only way to ensure the success of charging for online content is for every online news site to charge, or no one charges.

Newspapers have to do something to stay afloat, but charging for online content is a risky venture that inflicts the financial burden on readers who are frankly unwilling to pay. If paywalls are the only solutions for the newspaper industry, then publishers and editors need to go back to the drawing board.

Newspapers have to do something to stay afloat, but charging for online content is not the answer.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.

As online news overtakes television, opportunities for citizen engagement with the news increase

A study released last month by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the Internet is closing in on television as the main avenue for most Americans to get their news.

According to Pew, 41% of adults say they get most of their news about national and international news from the Internet, this up 17 points from 2007. 66% say that television is still their main source of national and international news but that is down from 74% three years ago and 82% in 2002.

This study also compared generational differences among news consumers and found that the Internet is the primary source of news for people younger than 30. Although not surprising, this is the first time that Internet has topped television news in any Pew study. In fact, since 2007, the number of 18 to 29 year olds citing the Internet as their main source for news has nearly doubled, from 34% to 65%.

This study, as well as so many other recent surveys, continues to drive home the fact that the ways Americans get their news has changed dramatically over the last decade. And, although this may be seen as the beginning of the end to print newspapers and television news, this isn’t a bad thing for the future of our country.

The various opportunities and platforms that Americans have to obtain news can improve democracy by ensuring a better-informed and aware public. If a working mother doesn’t have 30 minutes a day to read her local paper or watch the nightly news but she has a Blackberry, Droid, iPhone or iPad that feeds her selected stories ranging from PTA bulletins to Supreme Court nominations in between carpool, meetings and soccer practice, she will be better informed. The Internet allows her and millions of others the chance to keep abreast of the news that affects them while living their hectic lives.

In addition, we as a country simply cannot afford to rely on traditional media such as newspapers, local TV stations and radio to get all of our information. Local television news ratings continue to suffer historic declines and radio abandoned original news creation a decade ago. That leaves communities without coverage. Forced to live without vigorous local and state coverage, citizens must find other ways to get news or they are left in the dark. They also need to hear all sides of public debates in order to make informed decisions on who to vote for and what issues to support.

That’s where technology really becomes a game-changer. Now all citizens can gather news from their backyard on their computer without relying on the legacy media. In addition, average citizens also have the opportunity to become journalists themselves by reporting, writing and recording news on their own.

The Internet has truly revolutionized how we consume and produce news. And as more youth and adults begin utilizing the Internet for news gathering, the statistics of television news viewers will continue to decrease. Pew’s study isn’t novel in its findings but clearly show that the future of news is online.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center has two national news websites. To check out the investigative news site please visit Watchdog.org. To get the latest state capitol news please visit StateHouseNewsOnline.com. If you are a reporter or a citizen journalist and are interested in getting involved in non-profit journalism, please e-mail [email protected]

Joining the online news bandwagon

Howard Kurtz, Peter Goodman, Jim VandeHei, and Richard Johnson are just a few of the many reporters voluntarily exiting the legacy media to join online news ventures.

While many are scratching their heads wondering why these and other talented reporters are leaving the perceived luxurious lifestyle of the traditional media, those who work in the journalism industry have come to realize that online news ventures provide great opportunity to grow as a reporter and work on the cutting edge of journalism. In fact, increasingly, straight-shooting journalists are leaving the newsroom and joining online journalism organizations that provide journalists the opportunity to investigate the news and reemerge as the beat reporters from yesteryear.

The mass exodus from the traditional media comes at a time when the newspaper industry is struggling. Figures released this week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show average daily circulation fell 5 percent in the April-September period, compared with the same period a year earlier. A March 2010 report from the Pew Research Center’s annual Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that 2009 was a devastating year for the traditional news media. Among Pew’s findings were that newspapers currently spend $1.6 billion less annually on reporting and editing than they did ten years ago and over the last three years 15,000 full-time reporting and editing jobs were lost.

And while newspaper circulations and ad revenues are plummeting, a June 2010 Pew Report found that roughly a third (34%) of the public say they went online for news and 44% of Americans say they got news through one or more internet or mobile digital source. Both of these statistics are considerably higher than those who said they turned to their local newspaper for their news coverage.

However, the growth in popularity of online news is only one of the many reasons why reporters are leaving traditional media outlets for an online news project.

At many of the legacy media outlets, reporters feel quite limited due to orders coming from the top down, with very little collaboration. The immeasurable levels of bureaucracy that a reporter endures at a tradition media operation to get his or her idea heard were not only a burden but deterred creativity. Online journalism, particularly in a small organization, means very little bureaucracy and more innovation. It means being able to collaborate and communicate with everyone in the organization. And that leads to more ideas for stories and better journalism.

Reporters also found that not being bound by the traditional expectation of a large journalism institution such as the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle or San Francisco Chronicle had huge advantages. If those newspapers “don’t cover” something — such as every city council meeting — well, the reporters there will likely be criticized by the public. In the case of many new online news ventures, the public has no expectations, which allows the reporters to focus on long- and short-term investigations and enterprise journalism.

There is also a lack of a “Well, we’ve always done it this way” kind of attitude at online journalism organization. Because they are new, they are nimble and are more willing to try new ideas. This risk-taking approach is no longer apparent in traditional newsrooms around the nation that are being forced to cut back due to financial uncertainties.

As long as online news organizations continue to thrive and produce quality and accurate news coverage, more mainstream journalists are going to join the bandwagon. Soon it will no longer be a headline when a reporter leaves the Wall Street Journal is start up a news organization online. And as more and more online news ventures materialize, the journalism industry will get stronger and news consumers will have additional chances to see how powerful online journalism truly is.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which is dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. If you are a reporter or a citizen journalist and are interested in getting involved in non-profit journalism, please email [email protected]