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End of a (Juneau) Empire?

Our one daily newspaper, The Juneau Empire, recently celebrated its 100th birthday. It was bought by largish media company Morris Communications some years back. Recently, Juneau Empire publisher Mark Bryan announced changes that include a New York Times style paywall. With the New York Times, one can read up to ten articles a month before being asked for payment. Mr. Bryan of the Empire said that under the new model, “Digital-only … readers will have metered access to juneauempire.com, allowing for a few pages to be read every month before payment will be required.”

While I believe that the Juneau Empire, really corporate parent Morris Communications, has every right to charge for their digital content, I don’t think this model will be sustainable. My belief is based in part on this remarkable statement from Mr. Bryan:

“What’s vitally important for a community newspaper like the Juneau Empire is that we provide you some of that (national news) information, but local news is our niche. This is what you need. You’re not going to get it anywhere else. We’re the only ones that can provide that to you,” Bryan said. “So that’s a significant difference between 100 years ago and today.”

Mr. Bryan is correct that if there is salvation for the Juneau Empire, it is in news in Juneau it will be found. Assuming his own paper quotes him correctly, he is appearing to be delusional when he says: “You’re not going to get it anywhere else. We’re the only ones that can provide that to you.”  In fact, there are a number of other places one can find local news in Juneau, some of it updated more often than the Juneau Empire:

Juneau residents will note I left off the Capital City Weekly. That’s because it was bought out by the Juneau Empire a few years back. No word on whether it will folded into the Empire’s paywall scheme.

So, if the Empire’s model is “We’re the only ones with local content, and we’ll make you pay.” Then I think it is fair that model will fail in the year or so after it is tried. With the current level and quality of local news, people will move on to free sources.

The online tech magazine Monday Note had a recent article celebrating the success of the New York Times paywall model. In addition to noting how the New York Times had almost replaced declining advertising revenues with paid subscribers, the article suggested that these four boxes must be checked off for a paywall to succeed:

  1. Own a sizable share of a given (and preferably solvent) segment of the population.
  2. Allow time to grow the subscriber base. A paywall strategy must spread over several years.
  3. Carefully manage porosity. (Like how the New York Times won’t throw a paywall over referrals from blog posts.)
  4. Quality is non-negotiable. A successful paywall requires exclusive, unique, authoritative, high-quality content.

I don’t think the Empire has the first condition. In 2011, Juneau had a population of 32,290. The Juneau Empire has little news from outside Juneau that isn’t covered elsewhere. The Empire is not know for its coverage of state politics. People I know tend to go to either the Anchorage Daily News or the Alaska Dispatch for state political analysis. So the Juneau Empire’s potential paywall audience is about 32,000 plus some former Juneau residents wishing to keep up about goings on back home. But the Empire doesn’t really own this population because of the other local news sources listed above. To be fair, maybe the Empire has more usage than I currently give it credit for. I don’t have access to their web metrics.

While some on the Juneau Empire staff (see comments section in JE article above) claim the Empire is in a process of rebuilding their content, I don’t think they have authoritative, high-quality content most of the time. When I read the paper, most of the articles seem too short to me. Kinda like USA Today, which I almost never read. I will admit that during municipal elections, the Empire does do the best job of interviewing candidates and making their profiles available. But for the most part, there is little in the Empire I can’t get elsewhere. Plus, it isn’t even published on Saturdays.

In case Empire staff or boosters stop by this entry, here are my two cents on what to do to make your content worth paying for:

  • Fold the CCW into the Empire, unless it is actually a profit center for you. They have great essays and are a useful source of information on Southeast events.
  • More reporting on municipal matters. Move beyond just reporting on meetings (though useful). At budget time give us historical spending and taxing trends. Run and report on focus groups about what cuts they’d like to see or avoid. Look into how well city departments are doing their jobs. One easy way would be to look into the City’s recently posted budget information as that seems to include statistics and narratives on what city departments have done in the past year.
  • Invest in more Capitol coverage. It seems shameful that a Capital newspaper is NOT known for the coverage of the legislature meeting in their own city.
  • Consistently link to studies and reports that you write about. It is a definitely a value add to be able to find the “City water study”, etc. If its not online and is a public document, digitize and post it. That’s what your role model the New York Times does.
  • End anonymous/pseudonym comments. This isn’t a slam dunk for most people and I think you’ll get slammed either way. I find many of the comments on the Empire’s pages to be quite toxic and I think that can be traced directly to people being able to shield their identities.  Do what you do for the opinion pages – verify people are who they say they are. You can still do “Name withheld by request” for whistleblowers.
  • Upgrade your search engine. If we have to pay for content. It should be easy to find. At the very least I’d like to see limits by date on your first page.

I’d like to be proved wrong about the Empire’s plans. I also don’t know what they should do instead.

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