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History Repeating? The Pros And Cons Of The Trib's Latest Paywall plan

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Jun 27, 2012 8:20PM

Image Credit: Gabriel X. Michael

In a move that's not really surprising, given it's been hinted at for a while now, the Chicago Tribune announced yesterday it would finally begin taking the first steps towards creating a paywall, a move that takes a step backwards even as it takes a step forward.

The idea is that a redesigned website for the paper will be rolled out in the next week, according to a memo sent to employees by Bill Adee, vice president for digital development and operations. Part of that redesign will include putting certain content behind what's being called a "pay wall" but, in reality, will be just a stop-gap: users will be required to register and login to access that content, but, for now, won't have to pay for access. The idea is that through user experience and feedback (or, more likely, seeing what protected content readers gravitate towards most), the paper will be able to figure out where best to implement an eventual pay wall. Said Adee in his statement, "If the consumer chooses not to register, he/she will continue to have access to our core and Breaking News content as usual, but will not be able to access our exclusive and premium content without registration."

Of course, the Tribune was part of a larger group of papers, along with the New York Times, that instituted the same faux pay wall several years ago, only to see it quietly go away. The Times, of course, implemented a pay-for-access program, New York Times Select, which was eventually rolled back just two years after it had started. But all credit is due the Tribune here: at least they're taking their time with this next step. It's another in a series of publications simply putting their toe in the water of pay wall. The Daily Herald and Sun-Times implemented pay walls last year and Crain's Chicago Business just instituted a pay wall, all of varying options and pay scales. Even The Onion [full disclosure: I am currently employed by The Onion, Inc.] rolled out a small pay wall but it's limited to international readers to its satire online and is considered an ongoing experiment. Most of these have been slow, measured steps and with the Trib taking what looks to be the slowest approach, at least they're trying to do it right.

Whether they should be doing this at all, or if it's worthwhile, is another question entirely. As I mentioned, the Trib has been down the online registration path before though nothing came of it. And the Times Select program was either unsuccessful or not a failure depending on how you interpret its point of view. If there's success to be had here, it's going to be, as Crain's hinted, with a niche market.

“The idea that there are some niches that some people would pay extra to get more is viable,” says Rich Gordon, a journalism professor at Northwestern University. “The question is, how many niches are there and how big are they?”

It's perfectly possible that the Tribune has the pull to be successful. But it's unlikely readers will want to pay for specific columnists and it raises the question as to whether or not writers who might be put behind a pay wall want to be there, cut off from more readers. (If you thought John Kass was grumpy and out-of-touch about the internet before, wait until Gerould Kern has to tell him that his friends will have to pay more to access his columns on the internet than if they shelled out for a print edition.)

Just a few weeks ago, Kern celebrated in the print edition of a Sunday paper that the Tribune had managed to expand the amount of coverage in its print version, that the paper literally had more pages in it. This, of course, came after the decision several years ago to experiment with a tabloid edition on newsstands. That program was dropped two years after it was rolled out and with Kern's declaration, it seems the Tribune is, more or less, back to where it was four years ago, albeit with far less staff after rounds of cuts. Cuts that other local pubs like the Sun-Times weren't immune to, and continue to, occur (see the bloodbath down south a few weeks back). If the Tribune can make this pay wall work and prevent further layoffs, good. And taking a slow approach is best.

But just as the Tribune seems to be stuck in a cyclical means of experimentation, so, too, do all of these pay wall experiments. The Wall Street Journal has remained successful in their paywall plan but they provide such highly sought after, niche content, it's not hard to understand that success. But it doesn't mean the same success will roll over into the Tribune's new website (which will be implementing other changes—like "drop-down menus"—that will finally bring it up to where competing sites have been for a while). And while the New York Times claims their smaller paywall system has been a success, others are more cautious. Sun-Times editor-in-chief Jim Kirk says that paper is still taking a wait-and-see approach with its paywall and how the plan at Crain's pans out remains to be seen. Publications are trying again and again to close Pandora's box, to undo what was done all those years ago when the first newspaper went online with all its content offered for free. The notion that it's too late to undo that damage may be false, but so is the idea that papers will be able to find a solution that works without making it fully worth the readers' while.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the new plan is one that's been brushed over: the inclusion of premium content from Forbes and The Economist for registered users. With smaller staffs, papers are struggling to fill their sites with content and this is the latest example of the Trib trying its best to supplement content that would have otherwise been produced by that laid off staff. It also raises eyebrows in the wake of its recent decision to close its TribLocal suburban section in favor of content farmed by Journatic, a company based in the Tribune Tower and in which the Tribune Company recently invested. To say reaction has been mixed is to be kind; media critic Robert Feder called one of the early incarnations of the new Journatic-fed TribLocal "a worthless piece of garbage." There's still time for improvement, of course, and not everyone shares Feder's point of view.

But the concern remains that, even as the Tribune takes a cautious approach to a paywall, the legendary paper will be left with holes that no pay wall subscription rate can fill. If the Tribune can make the paywall content worth the money, then the readers will follow. But if it's another experiment that peters out, the Tribune will find it itself where it started, once again: either still under bankruptcy or just emerging from it, with depleted resources, and looking for a way to stay the number one paper in town while a resurgent Sun-Times looks to overtake them. The Trib certainly has the talent to remain the prominent publication it is now; it's just a matter of whether or not the bungling execs will finally wise up enough to get out of their way.