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On the Paywall

With the Providence Journal expected to launch a sort of mini-paywall in the near future, I thought I'd highlight a blog post from this Spring by Andrew Phelps over at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. He starts off writing about the Newport Daily News' experiment - charging heavily for the digital version of the News in a bid to drive readers back to the more profitable paper product.

Then, he muses on the ProJo's forthcoming pay wall:

It will be interesting to see whether the ProJo’s wall affects the Daily News. Last month I posed a far-flung hypothetical: Would readers pay for news if there were no free alternatives? In Slovakia, nine media companies are experimenting with a unified paywall — pay once for access to all — in an effort to reset years [of] consumer assumptions about free content.

Rhode Island would seem to be (to an extent) a Slovakian analog in the United States. It’s a small, relatively uncompetitive, relatively isolated media market. Take Aquidneck Island (which is officially named, confusingly, Rhode Island), home to the 12,000-circulation Daily News. There’s some competition, sure: An ad-supported blog called Newport Now launched three months after the News’ paywall rose. And a year later, AOL’s Patch made its made its foray into Rhode Island with sites in Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown — the whole of Aquidneck.

Still, once the ProJo paywall launches, we’ll have an interesting case study: If the only two papers covering Aquidneck are charging for access (and the ProJo hardly covers it like it used to) will citizens be more inclined to pay for online news?

The other question might be: Will that matter? In a piece examining “the uncertain future” of Rhode Island’s journalism scene, media critic David Scharfenberg described the dearth of social networking initiatives, inter-outlet collaboration, and other badges of innovation among the state’s media outlets. “What’s troubling about the Rhode Island mediascape,” he wrote, “is how slowly the players have moved to embrace this project — in an era when speed is nothing less than a matter of survival.”

But it could be that survival is a matter of sticking to roots, not branching out. If you view small newspaper publishing as a business, which it is, there’s still money in print. And it’s not as if the web has suddenly created a global audience for local news about Woonsocket, R.I. (No offense to Woonsocket, “a city on the move!”) Paywall or no paywall, the Daily News’ financial worth may lie in atoms, not bits.

And little Aquidneck Island not alone in that. “There still is value in print, no doubt about that,” the general manager of The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, has said. ”We shouldn’t be apologetic about it, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it.”

It's an interesting hypothesis. But I wonder how a paper of diminishing quality, and spiraling circulation, survives the transition to a fuller paywall. Absent some reinvention - some of the collaboration, blogging, and the like - that I discuss in my piece, I wonder how many readers will bother to stay with the Journal when the web site begins charging.

Maybe the paper can sustain a largescale loss. It just becomes a substantially smaller business. That's already the case, I suppose.

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