The Palladium-Item Paywall

At the beginning of September, the Palladium-Item newspaper in Richmond implemented what many other newspapers have in recent years, a "paywall" that requires users to have a paid subscription when viewing more than a certain number of articles per month on the paper's website.  The paper launched some new features with their digital subscription, including a tablet version and new mobile versions.

I think this approach is a great thing, and is probably something they should have done a long time ago.  Here's why.

I took the photo associated with this post at a recent meeting of Richmond Common Council, and the guy in the white shirt sitting in the front row is Palladium-Item reporter Bill Engle.  He's feverishly writing down notes about what Council members and their guests are saying and discussing, as he does at every Council meeting before rushing back to his office computer to file a story before his deadline for the next day's edition.

Bill is one of a small but hearty group of reporters at the Pal-Item who pretty much arrange their lives around the events in this community that need to be reported on.  Events that happen on evenings and weekends and at times not always convenient to the deadlines that go with printing a newspaper.  Events that they attend after spending a good part of their day trying to get sources and spokespeople to call them back for interviews or fact-checks, and not always about topics that are cheery or even all that interesting.

They, along with their editors and other staff, do this day in and day out, constantly working to fill the pages (printed and online) that our information-hungry, instant gratification culture demands to see always refreshed with new details and new perspectives.

It's hard to believe they've been "giving away" the fruits of that labor for this long.

There are those who take issue with the way a certain story is presented or what stories are left out (I've certainly been an outspoken critic of some of the paper's reporting at times), but I've seen a number of people react to the new paywall by referring to those kinds of criticisms and then expressing indignation about having to pay money for the services that the Palladium-Item offers to this community.   "The online newspaper should be free!" they've said.  "Why should I pay for news when I can get it somewhere else?" they ask.  And when the paper doesn't cover a particular story in just the right way or when they read an editorial they disagree with, they say the whole operation is just garbage.

I think there's a pretty big difference between criticizing the content of the paper, and suggesting that the reporting and publishing services that the paper provides have no tangible value.

Even with all of the business model problems in the newspaper industry, the day that Richmond loses its last regularly published newspaper will be a day that signals  a kind of decline and economic malaise that I don't think we want to have on our hands, not to mention the dangers of government unchecked by the accountability that media coverage can bring.

And even with the local radio stations that do some of their own news-gathering and even with bloggers, Facebook and Twitter, Richmond does not have anything near the critical mass of alternative media sources to produce the consistent, journalistically sound reporting that keeps a community informed. I've learned firsthand that serious journalism is not someone's side project.  An informed citizenry does not come from perusing sound bites on Facebook walls.

As my own relationship with the Palladium-Item has evolved over the years (see the "related posts" below), from dismissive critic to cautious observer and now to being a member of their volunteer editorial board where I see a little more of how the sausage is made, I can say that one thing has remained consistent throughout that time: the people at the paper have always been open to hearing and acting on rational critiques of how they can improve.  Despite whatever narratives we might perpetuate about financial motives or corporate overseers, the Pal-Item is still produced by a group of real human beings who live and work in our community, who feel good when our community is thriving, who feel disappointment when we stumble, and who are personally and professionally invested in doing the right thing.  When they mess up in putting out a paper, they feel the sting.  When they get a fact wrong or miss an important story, it's a big deal.  And when someone offers constructive ideas for how they can improve, they take those to heart.

Just as I wouldn't seek out a free brain surgeon or a free auto mechanic, I don't want my news to come from a rag-tag amalgamation of volunteers who may or may not know what the "two sources rule" is, who may or may not have a personal or political agenda to push, who may or may not have time to attend every single important government meeting.  I'm willing to pay for professional journalists to provide what I see as an essential service.

Yes, there are significant ways the Palladium-Item can improve.  But have you given them your feedback directly to see what they say?  Have you sent them your story ideas?  Have you written a letter to the editor that counters some of the problematic or just outright crazy stuff that gets published on a regular basis? Have you tried attending Common Council meetings a few times in a row?

And if we're not willing to pay what amounts to less than a dollar per day to support the paper's very existence, how can we expect them to have the resources to make those improvements, let alone put out any news stories at all?

8 thoughts on “The Palladium-Item Paywall

  1. As a retired journalist and inveterate newshound, I heartily agree with this writer. The Generation "Y" feels that blogs and "tweets" will spread the news, but that just isn't so. If local and regional newspapers don't do the unglamorous work of covering the City Council, the Zoning Board, the County Commissioners -- who's going to keep the foxes from taking over the hen-house? Not bloggers or tweeters; they'd rather focus on gossip. And broadcasters don't want to hire the staff to provide their own coverage -- they leech off newspapers. Here in Philadelphia, the Inquirer & Daily News are struggling -- I subscribe to support them. No one else is covering the shameful goings-on in the state capital. Right now these 2 newspapers are fighting the good fight to expose the shameful Voter ID Law that was slipped through the state legislature ... a highly-restrictive measure that may disenfranchise as many as 600,000 registered voters. It was crafted for purely political reason, affecting mainly the elderly & poor. Blogs and tweets don't set people talking about this ... but a newspaper exposé finally is waking our TV stations up to the scandal. Richmondites, keep your Pal-Item alive! You won't know what you're missing until it's too late.

    1. It would help if the Pal-Item were an expose type paper. There is some effort but it is held back by Gannet and other things. Yes, I agree with Chris that the paper is run by real people, some of them absolutely with the best intentions! But, they are restricted/limited.....They do have limits and must look like the Muncie Star and other Gannet papers. Gannet is who and what needs to be addressed. Personally, I have dreamed of an alternative paper NOT tied to such corps as Gannet. Maybe, someday

    2. Phillyjan: thanks for sharing this perspective!

      Lynn: if by "expose"-type paper, you mean tabloid, I don't think that would necessarily be helpful. Papers that try to have a scandal or shocking story on their front page every day aren't necessarily advancing the cause of an informed citizenry. Still, there may be some good opportunities for the Pal-Item to light some specific fires under some specific feet about some specific issues. Also, other than in matters of allocating financial resources, I've no reason to believe that Gannett is holding the reporters at the Pal-Item back from any particular reporting; I've definitely asked them that question myself over the years.

      Chris

  2. I am not paying for a 5 min newspaper in Richmond. Richmond is already a dieing town.

    USA Today or Wall st Journal I would pay.

    1. Michael: your comment doesn't make sense to me. What does your perception that Richmond is a dying town have to do with your willingness to pay for professional, local news reporting? I don't think you'll see any USA Today reporters sitting in on City Council meetings.

  3. I'll be honest, I'm still forming my own opinion of the new paywall. One reason is that I've not yet been able to find a clear statement of what that "certain number of articles per month" translates to. Is it per calendar month, or any given 30-day span? How many articles? I've seen the floating side-tab that currently claims I now have 3 articles left. When will that reset?

    I agree with you that good journalism should be compensated, but I'm not convinced that a paid-subscription model for current online content is the most user-friendly. Their pricing structure points to the larger issue - $10/month for digital-only access, but digital+print starting at $8/month. At first blush this seemingly defies logic. Ultimately this indicates the real issue is how much subsidy advertising provides.

    If this really is Pal-Item's best monetization scheme, I interpret it as saying print advertisers are so eager for my eyeballs that they'll cover the entire cost of a Sunday delivery print version (printing, delivery, etc.) AND give me $2/month towards the online version. I'm dubious that this could possibly be the case. But how else should I interpret this pricing structure?

    It makes me wonder if it's time for Pal-Item to shift more of its advertising energy to the online version, recognizing the changing readership habits of the younger generation, before it's too late. If it is absolutely necessary for Pal-Item to charge for online access, at least find a way to improve online advertising revenue to make the online-only subscription cost less than the online+print version.

    1. Matt - thanks for your thoughts! I agree that the pricing structure and what you get at each level could have some more details associated with it. One thing to keep in mind is that they might be running promotional discounts for different subscription levels right now that will change over time, so an apples to apples comparison may not work. And yes, the role of advertising in the paper's business model is a whole other good conversation; I've said for a while that I would be willing to pay *more* to have access to a version of the paper with fewer embedded ads.

      Chris

    2. Chris, thanks for your response and thoughts.

      I think you're pointing towards what I see as a "typical" online-subscription content model, where those who pay for a subscription are to some extent spared from the deluge of online advertising.

      However, I think paying more to access an online version with fewer ads is substantively different than paying for nearly all access to online content.

      Having read ahead to your follow-up post, I don't expect the Pal-Item (or anyone else) to simply give away their content for free. Nor to I expect advertising to completely subsidize their costs. Such ad-supported arrangements seem best suited to much larger operations with more diversified content (e.g. network news channels, etc.)

      That said, I personally don't/wouldn't mind ads that are relevant and potentially of interest. They wouldn't even all have to be local, though it is nice to see local advertisers on the Pal-item site that I don't stumble across elsewhere. I'm not opposed to my eyeballs being sold to either paper or online advertisers and in fact would welcome an arrangement where the Pal-Item is able to make more money from advertisers in order to better subsidize their online access alongside a paid online subscription model. I would also welcome a basic online access option in addition to a premium option for things like their new tablet version, less advertising, etc. Just some thoughts and ideas.

      Thank you for providing a venue for relevant and engaging conversation about local concerns and events!

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