“Can’t pay? We’ll take it away” is a strategy to kill local journalism as we know it

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In times of crisis, it’s easy to become enchanted with a simple solution. Faced with a pandemic which has devastated local revenue at many local news organisations, the idea of a paywall can be attractive. And so the argument has gone: “Local journalism would be much stronger if news publishers hadn’t started giving stories away for free online 20 years ago.”

The logic is attractive: Had the industry insisted people pay for journalism online – as they did in print – then we’d be more immune to market forces (and recessions), and wouldn’t have to pay such attention to scale metrics which influence decision making in newsrooms.

In other words, the good old days would have continued. We’d have written, people would have read. Everything would be fine.

This isn’t a new view. Coronavirus has given this view its latest lease of life, but it is reborn every few months. It was doing the rounds in the heat of the ONA19 conference in New Orleans last year, under a ‘the reader must now pay’ mantra (there were even t-shirts saying as much). Dame Frances Cairncross also pushed the idea that readers must pay in her review of local media. The words vary, the methodology is tweaked, but the underlying message is the same: You got it wrong 20 years ago. And you should correct that now.

I’d like propose a counter to that: Had local journalism gone behind a paywall in the 2000s, there would be next to no local journalism still functioning in the UK now.

To conclude that publishers made a mistake by not launching paywalls in the early 2000s is to forget why many of those owners entered publishing in the first place: to make money.

If there had been a credible model for online payment which enhanced their business, they’d have taken it. They didn’t because online was seen as a threat to the established business – a business which was worth far more than today, but one which, as history has shown, was vulnerable. Indeed, they did the very thing which some still call for today: Protecting newspapers because that’s where most of the money is. The dotcom bubble bursting made it much safer to retreat.

The print circulation declines were already there. This was in the days before the sort of rounds of redundancies which we subsequently have come to accept as a regular occurrence. Blame cover price increases if you like, but even they point to local news only having a certain value to readers. People were already choosing not to have a daily local paper in their lives at a time when dial-up internet was still very much a thing. A golden era we remember for journalism perhaps wasn’t so golden for readers.

The simple – indeed on some levels, logical – solution was to ignore the internet, or pay lip service to it, and circle the wagons around print. The seismic shocks to the industry caused by the financial crash of 2008-10 resulted in even more circling of those wagons, as the verticals of revenue which had protected us from having to ask searching questions of our relevance to readers as circulations declined, started going south too.

Editors, publishers, managing directors were all doing what they felt was right in the moment – trying to keep people handing over their 50ps for a paper every day. In the moment, it makes sense, but still the internet was growing. Facebook came to the fore, allowing people to swap news without needing a newspaper. Google search exploded as mobile internet expanded. No need to wait for the paper, I’ll just search for it now. And what we should have been finding from our local news site, we were finding from elsewhere. Or better still: “For the full story, just put down your computer, put on your shoes, and go to the shop and spend 50p buying it.” Hindsight, of course, is great.

It does give us insight into what a paywall would have done though: If readers can’t find news on their terms, they’ll keep looking elsewhere. The very fact so many newsrooms have encountered the mantra ‘I can get my local news from the BBC’ speaks volumes.

Paywalls were experimented with in some quarters, but they were soon removed. As with all too-simple-to-be-true solutions, the you’ve-always-paid-for-it-so-do-so-now-online was too good to be true.

Why revisit this all today? As the authors of the first draft of history, we really do owe our profession a hindsight vision which is as close to 20:20 as possible. That involves asking tough questions of ourselves.

Though it wasn’t the intention at the time, keeping us free online probably saved us. A paywalled local Press would have made it far easier for an expansionist BBC to, well, expand. That would have put far more local news at the mercy of Government policy than is the case today. Not good.

But once we got beyond the ‘protect the paper at all costs’ mindset, local journalism started asking tough questions of itself. Or rather, audiences represented in the newsroom through the metrics which record their activity, started making us ask those questions.

That’s led to a revolution in journalism which has profound effects, overwhelming good ones. Newsrooms which embraced local, digital journalism sooner are stronger today for it. The ‘I told you so brigade’ who argue chasing clicks (audience) has led to the job losses we’re seeing this year are merely choosing to see what they want to see.

No industry could come through the sort of revenue declines ours has seen so quickly this year, unscathed. But those reaching more people, more often are far better placed to come through it than those which have been driven by the platform which works best for the business.

And where there’s a disconnect between the stories a newsroom values, and stories readers show they value, the solution isn’t a paywall – it’s to work on making the less-read articles better appreciated by a larger number of people. Don’t rage against click culture, empower your newsroom to protect local journalism by making local journalism valuable to lots of people.

There remains precious little evidence that people will pay for online local news. They may be prepared to support it via contributions – publications as diverse as the Ipswich Star, Liverpool Echo and latterly the Yorkshire Post all believe so, and so do I – but it’s only part of the answer. Contributions could work because you’re tapping into the belief that local news serves a purpose which is worth supporting, rather than selling a service.

Micro-payments, too, make sense in some contexts – for stuff people *really* need to read, and where the value exchange is immediate.

Selling a paywall is far harder. It’s not like a subscription to Netflix, with so much choice there’s bound to be something you’ll want to spend a lot of time with. It’s not like a subscription to Peleton, which guarantees you the chance to ride a bike in your bedroom while a loud chap shouts positive messages at you. It’s something inbetween – neither specific enough to know what you’re getting, nor so broad that you’re guaranteed to find something you like all the time. And that’s problematic.

The challenge with local journalism is it does what it says on the tin. But unlock Ronseal, once you’ve seen the tin, the job is done: the reader is informed. A ‘must pay’ approach is essentially asking readers to pay for a lucky dip service.

For paywalls to also be part of the answer – and that’s all they will ever be – we need local news to be essential for as many local people as possible. It’s a hard sell, especially when people were already turning their back on the need for a daily paper prior to the onset of mobile internet.

Push the paywall view too hard and you end up closing off local journalism to everyone bar a core of super-engaged, civic-minded readers. That diminishes local journalism’s power and relevance, not enhances it.

A paywall will work if your newsroom is in listening, not broadcasting, mode.

JPIMedia’s paywall allows you them to be noisy locally, while targeting readers who read more than a handful of articles a week. Newsquest’s asks the super-loyal, some 40 pages a month I think, to start paying, while encouraging others to take up a subscription much sooner. Both models blend scale and engagement – which is as it should be.

Paywalls in the early 2000s would have all but killed off local journalism by now. A dash for paywalls now will have a similar impact.

With popularity comes relevance. With relevance comes a voice. With a voice comes the ability to articulate who we are, what we do and what we stand for – and why it’s worth supporting.

That was true in 2002. It was true in 2010. It’s true now, still, in 2020. Lets not make the mistakes of the past by trying to get the reader to fit around our needs. Lets keep working on ensure we fit around their needs. It’s not rocket science.

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