Yesterday, the Argus Leader announced that they will be moving toward a subscription model for their online content. Readers no longer will be able to visit ArgusLeader.com and expect to be able to read all the content for free. I didn't visit the website too often, but I'll miss the freedom to come and go as I please without being an online subscriber.
By now, most of us and have seen this paywall subscription model being offered by various news sources. Until recently, subscriptions were required from some larger print publications but rarely were part of the local or regional online news ecosystem. When a paper from a relatively small city such as Sioux Falls, SD moves in this direction it isn't difficult to acknowledge this as the trend we'll be seeing followed by more newspapers in the coming years. The move toward a subscription model was inevitable, as research as shown time and time again that publications haven't seen the same revenue through online advertising as they once did in the print media world of yesterday.
Revenue from online ads for niche sites like mine that have little overhead is enough. But real publications producing high quality content on a wider scope have genuine revenue concerns when providing you their content. Randell Beck of the Argus Leader acknowledged this in Sunday's edition of this paper.
Beginning next month, we will shift to a new subscription model founded on a unifying principle: The high-quality content created by our exceptional journalists informs, inspires and entertains in ways nobody else can match. And our pledge, in this fast-paced world, is to deliver that powerful journalism seamlessly across multiple platforms — web, mobile, tablet and your choice of print frequency. To support that step, we’re introducing our first smartphone apps, and you’ll be able to read and engage with us on your favorite electronic tablet.
This means people who don’t subscribe will have limited access to our web site, argusleader.com — a move, I believe, that reflects the true value of the stories we tell. And those stories, deeper and more relevant than they’ve ever been, will resonate with the most engaged consumers in this region: You.
Most of us involved in information technology and website development knew this time would be coming. Over the years, I've been bitter that it has taken so long for news sites to come to terms with the new media. The writing was on the wall decades ago and all print media had to do was accept it and move forward. I've always been a firm believer that online news is the future and not the enemy of print media. My point is that there really isn't much room for whining when your local newspaper is asking you to subscribe in order to compensate them for their work. I do think though there is plenty of room to complain about their choice to charge you by format and not the actual content delivered to you.
With all my advocacy for online content, it might surprise you that I still prefer my primary sources of news to be in print. I not only receive the Argus Leader newspaper in print, but I also have the Wall Street Journal delivered to my door. My good friend, Jean Stephens, calls me a dinosaur for not moving away from the paper medium. In my already too busy tech world however, there is something to be said about the experience of reading news stories via simple but reliable paper. My wife also prefers paper over digital for the news so that's the final nail in the coffin for me sticking with paper. I do however, also enjoy having the news digitally available to me and that's the start for the whining I'm about to do here.
The success of local media in using a paid subscription model still remains questionable. For all the progress that has been made, my gut tells me that news content providers still don't "get us" and the subscription format still needs to evolve before both customer and publisher are happy. I once subscribed to both the paper edition and online version of the WSJ but I found that I came to resent having to pay an additional fee to receive both the print and online versions of the publications. In the end, I chose the cheaper paper-only subscription while I imagine my friend Jean would be in favor of the cheaper digital-only subscription. The combination subscription at a higher price simply doesn't make sense to most in respect to personal finances.
I can't be the only one bothered already paying for the print version and having to fork over additional money just to see the same exact content online. I want my content available in any format that is convenient to me without the "convenience tax". It makes little sense to me as a subscriber to already pay for the print edition ($19) only to have to pay for the same content at additional cost when I view it also online ($22). My wife was excited about having the ability to read her newspaper either in print or online...until she found out that was going to cost her an extra $3 for that privilege.
While offering customers a variety of formats to receive their content is a good thing, I think there are negative consequences to offering that content under a variety of confusing subscriptions plans. If the point of the subscription model is to offer "high-quality content" to the reader, as Randall Beck states, then offering multiple subscription plans becomes a distraction and eventually divides your community of reader into subcategories of digital reader, print readers, and combo. This doesn't make for a good environment to allow for organic growth and it shows that publishers continue to remain too focused on format as their product and not the content. By putting your readers into different classes, you define your readers not by the quality of the content they read but by the format they choose to view the content.
My "free advice" to the Argus Leader and similar publications is to offer all your content under one subscription choice. Keep it simple so your content is the focus and not the format in which you deliver the content. My wife and I would have been happier paying for both the print and digital format without knowing there were cheaper but separate plans available. My wife sees these separate subscription plans as a dumb "Netflix" move and I can't help but agree with her.
Bryan Ruby is the owner and editor for CMS Report. He founded CMSReport.com in 2006 on the belief that information technologists, website owners, and web developers desired visiting sites where they could learn about content management systems without the sales pitch. Besides this site, you can follow Bryan at Google+ and Twitter.