Monday, May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Digital readers can save local news

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

In my last couple of columns, I’ve told you about our new Monday e-edition and afternoon newsletter, both of which are part of our strategy to attract more digital customers. So far, the feedback has been good on both of these new products, and I am hoping they will continue to find an audience.

Both are part of our digital strategy, which in turn reflects the evolving digital strategy of the traditional newspaper industry. We know that the number of customers for printed newspapers are continuing to decline. Pew Charitable Trust reported that U.S. newspaper circulation in 2018 was the lowest since at least 1940. In a world where people have a smartphone in their hands 16 hours a day, offering today’s news on newsprint to customers tomorrow morning is an increasingly tenuous business model.

But after years of pessimism, I am feeling a little more optimistic about our industry. We are attracting more and more digital customers.

The national newspapers are the farthest along in this digital transformation. The New York Times now has more than 7 million digital subscribers. The Washington Post has made enough money online to increase its news staff from about 580 to more than 1,000 over the past eight years.

In a recent presentation, the CEO of Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, said its paid digital subscriptions grew by 31 percent last year. The company’s goal is to increase the digital subscriber base from 1 million today to 10 million by 2025.

We aren’t The New York Times or The Washington Post here at The Columbian. But we can compare ourselves at least a little bit to Gannett, which publishes a lot of community newspapers, including the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., and The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore.

At The Columbian, in many ways we are still in what a consultant might call the “early innings.” But we are moving more toward meeting new customers online. In addition to our new digital products, we are packaging our current products in a better way. For example, for $25 per month, you can now buy a Columbian subscription that includes full access to our website and app, a daily e-edition and a home-delivered Sunday newspaper (assuming you live in our delivery area.) This option is proving to be quite popular with new subscribers.

One thing that isn’t so popular is limiting what we give away for free. We’ve long had a paywall, more politely called a digital subscription meter, that allows anyone to view a few articles for free in a 30-day period. After that, we figure you are a regular and ask you to pay. Recently, we followed another industry trend and began to designate a handful of stories as being “premium content,” which means you have to have a valid Columbian digital subscription to read the story. You can’t see the story as one of your free views.

We are trying to put about one story per day behind this hard paywall. If you haven’t seen this label yet, look at our website sometime when you are not logged in. (As a reminder, home delivery customers already have Columbian digital subscriptions. If you haven’t activated your account, go to www.columbian.com/digital to get started.)

We’re a little behind our peers in setting up this subscribers-only hard wall. The Oregonian/OregonLive has been using a hard paywall labeled “subscriber exclusive” for several months.

I am not sorry about this. It costs a lot of time and money to report a quality story, and journalists should be rewarded for it. News organizations will invest digital profits to get more good stories for their subscribers.

My prediction is that in a few years there won’t be much quality “free” news available on the internet, especially local news. You’ll have to pay for a subscription to read news you can trust. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there appears to be a growing number of people who realize the value of digital journalism and will pay a reasonable price to support it.

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