Paywalls Don’t Just Keep Readers Out, They Keep Good Content In: An Open Letter to My Hometown Newspaper


I used to keep up with news from my hometown, Wenatchee, via the online version of the city’s newspaper the Wenatchee World. The very same paper that I used to scan every night for mentions of my youth baseball stats. Then, as I grew older, I’d read as much as I could about the world outside the Wenatchee Valley. I even had one of my Apple Leaf articles syndicated.

Yes, the Woods family’s publication has been a part of my life for quite some time. Sadly, they’ve moved all their site content behind a paywall – even forgoing the precious 10 free views a month users used to get.

It’s a sign of the times, but I believe there are ways for independent local papers to make money and still offer content to their communities.

I applaud The World for keeping true to their vision of being “the fiercely independent voice of North Central Washington” for so many years, but lately they’re missing a huge opportunity to engage younger audiences and capitalize on the news sharing that drives site views and revenues (because, yes, even newspapers want to make money).

My suggestion… kill the paywall (kind of). I’m suggesting the World tap into the content explosion and sharing that’s happening across the web in order to draw in a generation of readers that simply might not be there in a few years.

Reward users for social sharing of articles, which then generate higher site traffic – which you can then use to create higher demand for ad space. Also, by using social shares as a form of payment for access to more content, you can start to see trends in content that can be used to help guide editorial and content development (data = good).

Here’s how I’d see it working: Each of the “above the fold” big stories of the day are available to read free of charge – no sign in necessary – as long as users share the story via Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest. This gives people a quid pro quo – but that also means you need to start thinking more quickly in terms of content. More blog-like and less paper like.

North Central Washington is a big place, with a ton of interesting stories, so why not let the people tell them? I suggest a community news section for each city that let’s readers become contributors (curated of course) in order to bring more eyes to the online content. Again, this could open up new audiences and repeat visitors. It also, looking at the numbers, can help by reducing the number of reporters/photographers/etc. needed to cover the region.

The online readership of the World is passionate – just look at some of the comments, but it’s skewing older and those people aren’t likely to share that news content. At $9.99/month, you’re pushing ahead of magazine content like Wired, Us Magazine, and People – content which is also available for free online (though the print issues contain other content) – highly shareable and engaging content.

Is this the only way to be successful in these times? No, but it sure is a good weapon to have in the arsenal, especially as the Baby Boomer generation starts to become even more digital friendly and their children and their children aren’t likely to subscribe to hard copies anytime soon. A few years ago, this was a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” type convo for most newspapers, the problem is – that time came quicker than most people thought it would.

One comment

  1. Kelly Allen · February 11, 2014

    Great ideas, Ron. I am always proud to share a Wenatchee World story that I read online and it’s important for me to stay in touch with my hometown, too. GOOD ADVICE!

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