Strange signals

A couple of head-scratching recent developments in the Colorado Springs news-media business:

• The Colorado Springs Business Journal website, csbj.com,  appears to have lowered its paywall. I don’t know the specifics. All I know is that a few months ago, nearly every link on its homepage was adorned with the image of a padlock, signifying that the news story could read only by paying subscribers. This week I go to the site and notice the padlock is nowhere to be seen on the homepage. Even the homepage links gathered under the “premium content” label can be read, from top to bottom, for free.

Clicking around the site, I find the padlock affixed to odd stories and columns here and there, becoming more common the as the datelines get older. It appears that somewhere in late June or early July, csbj.com became much more free with its stories.

What happened? I don’t know. I do know that in June, the Colorado Springs Independent bought the Business Journal.

I also know that more paywalls are being built than are being taken down, especially among larger news companies. I’ve been dubious about paywalls; they try to enforce the rules of classical scarcity economics on the Web, a place where infinity is the dominant force of nature. My view of them will need to evolve, now that the evidence is beginning to reveal that paywalls can generate at least marginal revenue when tailored to fit the individual market.

So, maybe csbj.com has plans for its paywall. For the moment, though, it looks like it doesn’t know what it wants to do. The site continues to sell an online-only subscription, for $75 a year. The money gets you “Complete Online Access.” Yet at this moment anyway, you can get something like 99 percent online access for nothing.

• The Colorado Springs Gazette has made its own counter-intuitive move in recent weeks, preparing showcase news reports for the Sunday editions that are available in print only. I first noticed it Saturday, June 20, when the front page promised an extensive recap of the Waldo Canyon Fire on Sunday, “only in print editions of the Gazette.”

It was stellar coverage, for sure. The Gazette news staff covered the fire ’round-the-clock even as some of them had to evacuate their homes. Their work deserved a showcase.

For a decade, though, the Gazette newsroom has been willing itself into a digital-first operation. For many years the standard procedure has been to post news online as soon as possible, leaving most print considerations for the end of the day. As the G’s editor, my instructions to the news staff were to hold almost nothing back from the website. Post first, publish later has been utterly routine in the newsroom for a long time now. Most news stories planned for the Sunday paper, for example, are posted at gazette.com during the day Saturday.

Now this, from a company that, in a cost-cutting move late last year, laid off about a dozen people in the newsroom who were considered by current management to be not digital enough.

The theory is that if you make the printed paper special enough, readers will snap it up and thus advertisers will knock each other over to buy space on those pages.

It seems a retrograde idea at a time when newspaper advertising has fallen by 50 percent in the past five years. There is a lot of compelling journalism published on newsprint every week in newspapers all across America, yet print advertising continues to drain away.

This is where the discussion wanders into the long-running debate over whether newspapers should have ever started posting their stories online, for free. Genie, meet bottle. I’m guessing there will continue to be a profitable market for paper-based journalism, in increasingly narrow, highbrow, luxury categories. Only the glossy (or the ironically rough-hewn and downscale) will survive. I’m less sanguine about the ability of local, general-interest news, mass-printed on paper, to gather an audience either sizable enough, or targeted enough, to interest enough advertisers to keep the enterprise afloat.

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2 thoughts on “Strange signals

  1. Great comments Mr. Thomas. I wish you had been this straightforward when you were with the Gazette! Or maybe you were, but censored. Because I don’t remember your reign there being so honest and insightful. I’m impressed with your blog. Not so impressed with the time you were at the Gazette.

  2. Pingback: Print as luxury good | First things

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