A story last weekend about a fatal vehicle crash seemed to spark the latest and loudest outcry about a business model that’s as old as, well, business.
It seems a few people were unhappy about having to pay to access the story on The Covington News’ website, covnews.com.
Here’s how it works: Our site is set up to give all users access to two stories a month. After that, we ask you to be a subscriber to our newspaper.
Newspapers got this wrong for years and years. There’s a 1981 television news report about San Francisco’s newspapers putting their content onto computer networks for the few people who had access to them at that time.
The monochrome screens and wide lapels are almost funny now, but there’s one line that makes me want to scream.
David Cole of the San Francisco Examiner said, “We’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either.”
With that mindset, newspapers spent the better part of three decades giving their content away on the internet. The thought was, if we put it out where people can see it, maybe it will convince them to become print subscribers.
The thing is, the opposite happened — and why wouldn’t it? How many businesses would you support with your dollars if you could alternatively get the same product for free?
Probably not many.
At a previous stop in my career, I offered a three-month subscription to the newspaper for $1, and that paper came out five times a week. For the price of a single issue, you’d get 60 delivered to your door.
We offered this deal for a day only, at the city’s biggest festival of the year. I can’t tell you how many people passed, not because they didn’t value our product or understand what we offered, but because they were already consuming it online and were used to not paying for it.
The diploma on my wall says Bachelor of Business Administration, but I didn’t need all those management classes to tell me something was really wrong with the business model.
Soon thereafter, I gathered my staff for a meeting to tell them we were changing the strategy. I opened by asking how many of them wanted to work for free.
Not surprisingly, no hands shot up that morning. And because newsgathering isn’t free, we introduced a paid model for our website.
Yes, there was griping, as there is now in Covington from time to time, but my mind isn’t changing on this.
Newspapers are, at their core, a business. And just like at your business, I have to have a little money left in the cigar box at the end of the month.
Some of the people who demand free content say, erroneously, we’re the only paper who does this. In fact, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many of the other leading papers in our industry have instituted similar models as ours. Some papers have an even harsher subscription model, as they give no stories on a trial basis.
Another objection is the free access to stories on local television stations’ websites. My answer to that is, if you’re subscribing to cable or satellite, you’re funding those stations whether you actually watch them or not. With an estimated 2.45 million television households in the Atlanta market, you can imagine the dollars on that. In fact, you’ll have to imagine because when I’ve asked cable operators in the past about their deals with local affiliates, I’ve been told broadcasters have gotten federal cover to keep those numbers a mystery. (Keep that in mind next time there’s a dispute that takes a local station off Charter or DirecTV.)
I appreciate the fact people want to read our content. But it’s not cheap to produce and the fact there’s demand for it tells me it’s still meaningful. We plan to keep producing it, but there is no way it makes sense to give it away.
I’m not aware of any business in Newton County with a business model that is even as generous as ours: two uses of the product in a month for free before you’re asked to pay. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe someone can show me a business model that works differently, but until then, I don’t plan to apologize for running a business the way they’ve always worked successfully.
Oh, and if you want to get access to this content, give us a call now. Your subscription in April can give you chances to win a Big Green Egg. Details are available here, or in this weekend’s paper on Page 7A.
David Clemons is the editor and publisher of The Covington News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @scoopclemons.