The pay wall’s silver lining

As reported here last week, the Star Tribune finally allowed print and e-subscribers to read Sunday newspaper stories on Sunday. The first batch popped up yesterday, along with Nancy Barnes’ editors’ note.

Non-subscribers will be able to read the stories Wednesday, prompting Barnes to declare, “This is not exactly the same thing as a pay wall” but in the next sentence says, “We expect to put more premium content behind the subscriber wall, and we may eventually cease to release it to nonsubscribers on Wednesdays at all.”

As a guy who currently pays the Strib about $240 a year — unreimbursed! — I don’t really disagree with Barnes’ case that newspapers need to get paid for what they produce. There are the usual put-downs of competing economic models (this in a week when the Strib probed the University of Minnesota’s “Troubled Waters” controversy only after the “philanthropy-funded” Twin Cities Daily Planet uncovered it), but again, I don’t dispute the Strib’s pre-eminence as the biggest, most experienced newsroom in town.

The question, of course, is whether people will pay, even if the producer feels they deserve it. After the finger-wagging, Barnes (like CEO Mike Klingensmith), concludes by casting the pay wall as a reward for subscribers, and that’s the right way to play it.

We’re only one week into the new era, so it may be foolish to draw any conclusions, but it strikes me there’s another potential subscriber benefit the Strib might want to tout: a startling drop in knucklehead comments.

OK, on four of this Sunday’s five “premium” stories, there were no comments at all. That alone may be sweet relief to web readers, though it probably reflects how few subscribers have linked their account numbers to surmount the pay wall.

The fifth story — about how a debtor’s death doesn’t stop bill collectors — has elicited just four comments as of Monday morning. But they’re pretty good ones. Begging the forbearance of the Strib tollmasters, here’s one example:

I worked for a collection agency now known as DCM in Golden Valley back in 2002-03. There were days when I brought in a couple of thousand dollars from the family of a debtor. What I learned about debt and death is this, don’t co-sign with anyone in your family to finance anything. By keeping them out of your finances, you save them the embarrassment of being collected upon. If someone in your family dies with debt, you tell the debt collector the probate information if there is an estate and if there is no estate, you tell them that. They are unable to call on you if there is no estate to claim on. They can ask you to consider paying, but if you say no, they are legally obligated to stop calling you about it.

Now, I have no idea if the commenter really did work for DCM or if the advice is accurate. But the comment thread is blissfully free of rants, boilerplate bias accusations and all the other reflexive feces-hurling that marks a Strib comment thread.

I remain skeptical that pay walls will work, because people are cheap and no matter how good papers feel about themselves, there are acceptable substitutes elsewhere, even if they’re inferior. Still, I can’t help wondering if the Strib is throttling the wrong end of the user experience. Let people read the stories for free, but charge people to comment. Appealing to people’s better angels may work, but baser instincts may be a stronger market.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 09/20/2010 - 09:24 am.

    Wow, the comments behind the paywall are almost like comments on MinnPost!

  2. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 09/20/2010 - 09:35 am.

    I’m perfectly fine with the Strib erecting a paywall, but they need to set up a subscription scheme that doesn’t require getting the actual newspaper. That model is dying. Yes, I know about the e-edition but I don’t want that either. How about a model that allows me just web access? It is 2010…get ‘er done!

  3. Submitted by Jane McClure on 09/20/2010 - 10:01 am.

    It would also be nice is Ms. Barnes didn’t feel compelled to take a shot at community journalists and bloggers in her column, as if we don’t work as hard as her very special reporters do.
    Now I need to go outside with a basket and wait for MY articles to drop from the sky. . .

  4. Submitted by James Blum on 09/20/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    Somewhat off-topic, but I received yesterday my 2nd week of Strib Extra, which I was led to believe was the Sunday ad supplements with a small amount of “that pesky content,” as I believe DB referred to it in his item in Braublog. So what did I get? Not much (but the price — free — was right).

    A Best Buy ad, a JoAnn Fabrics ad, an Aldi ad, a Strib ad (“subscribe now!”) and the news digest. Actually, for the record, I received 2 copies of each. My guess is that the package looked so flimsy that they doubled it just to make it feel like it had even a bit of heft (it came in at less than 1/8 inch thick).

    For that package, free isn’t even good enough. Not one coupon, not one piece of information in the package that will affect my life in even the most minuscule way. It actually lowers my regard for the Strib’s understanding of its audience (and that regard was already pretty low).

    This is in keeping with my experiences with the Strib. They have repeatedly had opportunities to provide value to me, and they always miss. And then I went online and read Nancy Barnes’ note, and that annoyed me even further. Just because you tell me you’re providing value to me doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it. In other words, if I don’t want what you’re selling, no amount of whining and bitching are going to make me buy it.

  5. Submitted by Jane McClure on 09/20/2010 - 01:08 pm.

    Thanks, David. I realize there are people who post information for free and call themselves community journalists, but there are also community journalists (like me) who hold degrees, who put in as many if not more hours and who do the same things the Strib folks do. . . go to meetings, check public records, read exciting planning commission studies, etc. I went to a university where there was an emphasis on community journalism. That’s what we studied and that’s what many of us still do.
    We community journalists, paid and free, offer information the dailies cannot and do not cover. . . so why put us down? It may not have been intentional but. . .

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