After 140 years in the business, the St. John’s daily newspaper is doing something entirely new.
The internet became mainstream about 20 years ago, changing the way we consume music, books, television, news and everything in between. In 2019, newspapers are still struggling to survive the shift.
As the debate about how to best make the shift to digital and still make a profit continues, The Telegram, a St. John’s daily newspaper in existence since 1879, has decided to adopt a paywall and charge for portions of their online content.
Geoff Meeker is a former blogger, whose work was hosted online by The Telegram. His work focused primarily on matters relating to local media. When it comes to the paywall, he recognizes the need for it but says there are far too many factors at play to hazard a guess as to whether it till work out.
“I’m cautiously optimistic but I have to say cautiously for sure,” Meeker said. “Newfoundlanders love to talk about their politics.
“So if they keep coming up with good stories, there’s a good chance that some people will pay for that. To be in the know.”
There will still be plenty of free content from the Telegram. Breaking news, anything public safety related, letters to the editor and more will all be accessible without subscription. Three exclusive articles are available within a certain time frame free of charge. After that, readers are asked to subscribe at rate of either $3.46 per week or $14.99 per month for unlimited digital access.
Meeker is hopeful the paywall will bring the newspaper closer to the prosperity it once had in the hay day of print ads. He points to the New York Times as an example of a newspaper that has been massively successful with its online subscriptions, but he adds there is no shortage of examples of failures.
According to Meeker, many newspapers – the Telegram included, albeit with a different model – have temporarily adopted paywalls and been forced to abandon them once web traffic dropped off sharply.
“I remember they tried a paywall seven or eight years ago and then they had it up for a while and then took it down,” Meeker said.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of internet news on the newspaper industry. A business model that relied on revenue from ads and classifieds was devastated by the sudden rise of websites like Craigslist, Kijiji and Facebook.
Colette O’Hara is the chief strategy officer at the Saltwire Network, the parent company of the paper. She says Saltwire spent about a year and a half researching and comparing the different paywall models out there.
“The New York Times – 60 per cent of their annual revenue is now digital subscription, which is a really huge transition for them,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara says the various papers under Saltwire ownership are hoping to replicate this sort of success and says that in the era of Trump and Cambridge Analytica, plenty of people are willing to pay for news they consider to be reputable, reliable and objective.
However, O’Hara says that creating quality content requires investment in journalism, and investment costs the kind of money that the Telegram is no longer making through advertising alone.
“We’re going to ask consumers to basically team up with us and support the efforts that go into creating quality, unbiased, trusted journalism,” O’Hara said.
The longstanding paper has plenty of competition for eyes in the local online news market, with it’s stiffest competition coming from the CBC, which benefits from taxpayer funding.
The Telegram is currently offering extra incentive to those interested in purchasing an online subscription to the daily newspaper, with a limited time offer that will see early adopters save over 65 per cent off the first three months.
O’Hara is optimistic that readers will invest in an online subscription to the Telegram on account of the quality of the exclusive content. She says that asking readers to pay for the news is more of a return to form than a revolutionary idea in the industry.
“The entire newspaper industry has started to shift to put up what we call a paywall, which is effectively just asking people to take out a digital subscription for our content,” O’Hara said.“Essentially we’re saying we’re going to place value on our product once again.”