How the January storms swept the paywall argument out to sea

thedroneIn the months running up to Christmas, it felt as if the paywall argument was gathering some momentum within the regional press again.

At an NCTJ conference in November, deputy editor of the Bournemouth Echo Andy Martin said he’d introduce a paywall tomorrow, arguing that the industry should never have given away the ‘valuable commodity’ of online news. He argued that he had such confidence in the quality of his newsroom’s journalism that he’d put a paywall up tomorrow. A number of Newsquest editors posted Tweets backing him up.

I’m sure those words will have been well received in the Bournemouth Echo newsroom, but arguing against a paywall isn’t about claiming our content isn’t worth anything. It’s about being aware of what’s going on online, and the fact that there’s precious little evidence that people will pay for local news.

In December, ex-Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson, a man who I suspect would be the first to wear the ‘Make them pay’ slogan as a badge if someone made them, delivered his ‘heroes of the year’ blog post on Hold the Front Page, with top billing going to Robin Burgess, boss of Cumbrian Newspapers, who has every intention to make the audience pay for his company’s news.

Indeed, the phrase he used was ‘the audience must pay’ during a keynote speech at the Society of Editors conference at the rather swanky Arden Forest Hotel near Meriden, in the West Midlands, back in April.

The notion that the audience must pay is one which maybe sounds appealing – and certainly got heads nodding – when in a conference room overlooking a golf course with deer skipping past from time to time. However, in the cold light of day, looking out from the Cumbrian Newspapers HQ in Carlisle, surrounded with terraced roofs stretching into the distance, I would imagine it doesn’t feel as simple as that.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I would like nothing more than for an established audience to pop up and say ‘We’ll pay for your content, just keep providing the same random mix of news and sport which is connected by nothing more than geography and I’ll be happy.’ It would be problem solved. But it’s not going to happen.

And I think the storms which many parts of the country have endured over recent weeks have demonstrated that we, as a regional industry, have the capacity to be indispensable, as I saw for myself when I looked at our audience figures in December for websites in Cardiff, North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Surrey, Berkshire and the Midlandssuggesting Dyson’s latest critique of digital at Trinity Mirror is a little out of date.

Beyond the websites I work with, Local World titles in the south west updated people around the clock as storms lashed the coast, as did Newsquest sites in Mid Wales and in Hampshire and Dorset. I’m sure there were many more, and the photography across these sites and beyond was stunning.

But imagine, just for a moment, if we’d had paywalls around our sites – be they full, pay-or-sod-off paywalls or pay-as-you-go model. What do you think would have happened? Would people, up to their ankles in water and without power be digging out their debit cards to log on via their mobiles? Would worried relatives elsewhere in the country link your website to their Paypal account to keep up to speed with your live blog?

No, of course they wouldn’t. They’d have gone to Twitter, where police forces share information by the minutes. Followed new pages on Facebook, where the Environment Agency was actively driving users when appearing on broadcast media. They could have searched Google and found any one of the traditional national newspaper brands now hoovering up any agency copy they can find. Or checked out the BBC, which is superb at cross promotion. Or discovered hyperlocal sites run for passion or for money … and never again thought twice about us.

The best example I can give of this is the website I learnt of its existence on BBC News on the Sunday night of the floods which hit the south east, after it credited the website with providing this image:


You might have read the story – about local volunteers rescuing a woman, and her dog Elvis, who has been stranded for 13 days as the flood waters settled. Looking around on Sunday night, no other local website, be it the local weekly or daily newspaper, had the story or image. By 5pm the next day, they all did. But by then, the story was old. It began life on a hyperlocal site and spread to the BBC quickly.

That shows the competition we have around us now, in the space we used to consider our own. It’s why I roll my eyes when media pundits compare the digital performance of regional press publishers. With the odd exception, we aren’t rivals, if we ever really were. We have many other rivals out there … and for as long as they’re prepared to either distribute news for free or provide a platform, for free, where people can build their own communities of interest, which is what we all do on Facebook, paywalls will be more likely to fail or not.

Paywalls offer  a neat conclusion in the minds of many journalists: ‘Our work has a worth, therefore people should pay. That solves the revenue problem.’ Sadly, that’s not the case. The audience determines the value of our content to them, the market availability of content dictates the price. And that’s the way it has always been.

The business of regional journalism has always been about finding ways to make money from our content. For a long time, audiences would pay for daily or weekly newspapers, providing a good mix of revenues from cover price and advertising. For a long time, freesheets could survive packed full of advertising with a lot less content because of the distribution figures they could claim. But there are many free newspapers which prided themselves on brilliant content every week – as I learnt as a trainee at the Chorley and Preston Citizen newspapers – without a cover price.

Then, Newsquest could justify editorial teams because the revenue was there. The challenge is no different now. We have the potential to create great content, we just need to find the revenue model. There is no rule which says the audience must pay, or that free content is poor content. The rule is that we must make money from the audience in a way they find acceptable. Anything else shows a lack of respect for that audience … and the storms of January 2014 proved that once and for all for me.


6 thoughts on “How the January storms swept the paywall argument out to sea

  1. Dave – You might be interested in this … I have just put it on Media Lawyer. FoI CAMPAIGN LAUNCHES URGENT APPEAL FOR FUNDS The Campaign for Freedom of Information – the UK’s the leading voice in promoting and defending freedom of information rights – has launched an urgent appeal for funds in a bid to raise 25,000 to ensure that it can keep going at least until the end of March. The campaign is not merely about achieving FoI rights – it also advises the public on using the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, encourages good practice by public authorities, and provides FoI training and works to improve how the Act works. The Hawktalk blog says: “The Campaign for Freedom of Information is an essential bulwark against a state that can be addicted to secrecy; it is a centre of excellence for FoI advice and consumer protection. If you are ever stuck, the Campaign is an accessible font of FoI knowledge.” The author of the post – at – goes on: “Why am I writing this? Well the Campaign for Freedom of Information is having financial troubles; without their amazing work there would be no Freedom of Information Act or FOISA [Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act], no Accessible Record and indeed no category (e) personal data that gives access to all the stuff which, but for category (e), there would be a huge data protection loophole. “It was the Campaign for Freedom of Information which during the Thatcher era lit the FoI torch. Its cross party approach to FoI was maintained, well argued and consistent. It took time, patience and two decades of persistence before the Campaign was ultimately successful. We cannot afford to let that torch be extinguished.” Campaign director Maurice Frankel recalled Tony Blair’s change of heart about freedom of information. “Shortly before he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair said: ‘It is not some isolated constitutional reform that we are proposing with a Freedom of Information Act It is a change that is actually fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country…there is still far too much addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct government business behind closed doors’. “At that stage, he powerfully made the case for FoI legislation and praised the crucial role of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in promoting it. “But in 2010 – after his years as Prime Minister – Mr Blair took the diametrically opposite view and declared his earlier approach to be that of a ‘navenincompoop’. “Of course, it was his earlier approach to FoI that was right: the FoI Act brought a fundamental – and much-needed – change into British politics. But what Mr Blair said in 2010 made an equally strong case – albeit unintentionally – for the continued need for the Campaign for Freedom of Information. “There will always be threats to an effective FoI law, and a risk that the jungle of secrecy will grow back. The need for CFoI to help protect the right to know is still essential.” Campaign board member Russell Levy, head of clinical negligence at law firm Leigh Day, said: “The expertise and work of the Campaign is unique. “It would be bad news indeed for freedom of information if the Campaign had to close for lack of funds. “A strategic review is under way at the Campaign, with help from supportive experts, with a view to putting in place a sound foundation for the longer term. “The challenge is for the Campaign to survive for the next two months. To do so, it needs cash – and needs it now. “For the Campaign for Freedom of Information to close – through lack of funds – would be a victory for those who celebrate secrecy. We don’t want that to happen. It is critical that the Campaign’s work should continue and that the voice of the organisation should be retained.” Donations to the Campaign can be made online or by other means – see the website-

    Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2014 09:00:43 +0000 To:

  2. Hi David: I’m not so sure all paywalls – and there’s various types – should be written off so quickly. Robin Burgess isn’t the only publisher considering them. Indeed, Newsquest are already talking about their success in one of it’s centres and have plans for more. And other trials are underway at several national newspapers. Re. ‘Make them pay’ badges, you’re right that I’d love it to be proven that they work. But I know that such proof does not yet exist. What I am keen on is the kind of model Newsquest are considering, as it’s only by trying different varieties out that the newspaper industry will learn what works (or not). It’s bit like the paid-for Birmingham Post Business Daily tablet… you launched that last June and it was hoped it would change the world of business journalism. I applauded its launch. Six months later, you bravely admitted it didn’t work, and closed the model. Again, I applauded this bravery – better to act decisively if things flop and move on. But most importantly, in a changing digital world where none of us knows what’s going to work revenue-wise, it’s important that such experiments – reasonable ones – take place. And that’s also the case with paywalls – let’s welcome publishers trying different types, not snobbishly decry them because ‘we know better’. One last point, as you mention it: I couldn’t find access to the latest regional web figures that you refer to – the data I can see is the six monthly figures reported last year. I did ask you before Xmas if we could chat about such things, but realise you must be pretty busy. If you have time to send me a note where such figures might be, or to give me access to your latest figures, I’d be pleased to refer to them next time I write a relevant blog. Even better, I’m still happy to meet up for a more in depth natter if you have the time. Many thanks and best wishes. Steve

    1. Hi Steve. Controlled trials are great, but the starting point of ‘the audience must pay’ isn’t a very wise one, and the two examples I gave – of the NCTJ conference quote and the SoE quote from Robin, were based around that premise.
      The audience will decide if they will pay, not us, and that’s a difficult place for us to be.
      So lets experiment, but in a way which doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Data in return for content is one option, making the most loyal readers pay (as they are probably the ones most likely to, although it’s at odds with the theory you reward your most loyal customers) after a certain number of page views is another.
      But I fear parts of the industry are still in a place where they are saying ‘You’ll have to pay for this’ when the audience is saying ‘no we don’t.’
      Happy to talk through what we are doing.

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