Baltimore Sun paywall is 'suicide,' morale in newsroom 'at a low point,' says source
Last Friday, Jim Romenesko broke the news, via a leaked internal memo from Baltimore Sun publisher Tim Ryan, that the paper that promises "light for all" will, instead, only bring said illumination to readers willing to pay for it: Beginning Oct. 10, the paper will "offer digital subscriptions," which really means it's erecting a paywall.
In the memo, Ryan explains that without a subscription, readers will have free access to only 15 articles per month (a number that includes links from social media and other websites). He continues,
As the numbers clearly show, digital consumers recognize the website’s value. We are confident they will subscribe to maintain access to all of our unique, in-depth local news and information, and we will continue to innovate in ways that provide those readers with the news they want, the way they want it.
Romenesko posted the memo on his blog at Poynter at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, and baltimoresun.com didn't publish a condensed version of it until sometime on Sunday. That doesn't bode well for "the website's value" as an innovative news source — not one that can keep pace with the Internet, anyway.
A paywall can work, if stories about the New York Times' success are to be believed. But the Sun's paywall is much more restrictive. The Times provides 20 free articles per month, a limit that doesn't include links from search engines, blogs, or social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Also, print subscribers get everything — unlimited website, smartphone and tablet access — for free. The Sun, however, will charge print subscribers, who are already paying more than $300 a year, an additional $29.99 for unlimited use of the website. (A digital-only subscription costs about $100 a year, excluding the introductory offer of 99 cents for the first four weeks.)
This news has some proclaiming the paper dead, while Jim Brady, TBD's former general manager and currently editor-in-chief of the Journal Register Company, suggests Sun readers will migrate to free news sites:
I'm neither for nor against paywalls. I suspect that, when structured properly, they can work for certain papers. I'm just not sure the Sun is one of those papers — especially when you consider what one source says about the newsroom's reaction. "Morale in the newsroom is at a low point," the source tells DCRTV. "No one can understand why we'd make print subscribers pay for the online stuff. It's just suicide, an experiment being carried out by the Tribune on just one of its properties." The source also noted that the comments section on the Sun story about the paywall had been shut down, which can only mean that the comments weren't in favor.
Of more concern, though, is the story itself. The reporter, Childs Walker, notes the Times' success, and quotes a media business analyst — at none other than the Poynter Institute — who says, "It's very much a hot trend. It makes a lot of sense because it addresses what many considered the worst barrier to moving in this direction."
Walker never quotes a paywall critic, and, more egregiously, never mentions that it was the analyst's coworker, Jim Romenesko, who broke the story — not the Sun itself. That would've been difficult to admit, but the right thing to do for a news outlet that hopes to succeed in the digital landscape.
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