Monday, October 04, 2010

Sentinel Goes Behind the Paywall

Leetsdale, PA - Happy October.

When Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton announced in a column last week that his newspaper would be charging a fee for access to much of its online content, I was disappointed but not surprised, in part because of my research last year that showed most Seaton-owned papers doing the same thing, but also because Mr. Seaton told me as much in an e-mail exchange almost a month ago.

I was doing some research on a post about copyright trolls such as Righthaven, a Las Vegas-based law firm that made headlines back then for pursuing both commercial and non-profit websites in court for alleged infringements on the copyrighted material of its client, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  I had asked the publishers of both local papers if they would consider such a move, and if they had anything in place that defined for the end user exactly what constituted infringement. Mr. Seaton replied initially:
"We at The Daily Sentinel have elevated our enforcement efforts against misappropriation of our intellectual property.  We are finding that our competitors are lifting and repurposing our content at the rate of 1-4 stories or photographs per week.  This misconduct will likely force our hand, and we will find ourselves vigorously enforce our rights -- perhaps with the assistance of Righthaven, LLC.  We are building a case internally against the worst violators."
It's unknown specifically who these "worst violators" are, but it's possible that other media outlets in the Grand Junction market may be among those Mr. Seaton applied this label to.

Mr. Seaton also referred me to a post by federal judge and blogger Richard Posner, which put forth basically the same argument that Mr. Seaton used to justify putting up a paywall to view most of the "value-added" content in the Sentinel. His argument is somewhat blunt and stark:

"We're trying to tamp down on the free rider problem.  The industry as a whole is headed this direction.  As Posner has observed, it's a matter of survival or extinction for this industry, I'm afraid."
Kim Burner, General Manager of the Free Press, replied:
"Colorado Mountain News Media has a policy in place prohibiting copy right (sic)infringement and will seek to better understand the Righthaven strategy. Once we do we will perhaps get back with you with comment." 
So the Sentinel will keep a good portion of its' features and top stories from those Internet freeloaders, making them available only to 7-day subscribers to the print edition, which costs roughly $140 a year. In all fairness, a lot of valuable content will still be available for free, and I cannot dispute Mr. Seaton's desire to charge for the any or all online content of his newspaper if he wishes to do so. However, I have a few points to make regarding this:

  • Mr. Seaton states in his column: "Significantly, we derive revenue from sales of The Daily Sentinel; we do not derive revenue from visitors to the website." I question the Sentinel's prior commitment to its web presence in terms of the marketing of advertising space online, and creating features that make the value-added power of online content that much more appealing to the potential subscriber. I'm sure that the banner ad just below the top of the home page can contain ads for something other than right-wing astroturf groups and Rick Wagner.

  • Speaking of value adds, there are some annoying quirks of the Sentinel website that could be resolved with a revenue stream, and perhaps more help for the web editor. Examples are a search feature that allows for more detailed article searches, and a more complete online archiving of stories that doesn't expire, similar to the Free Press and most of the broadcast stations.
    I did make a remark that perhaps through subscriptions Mr. Seaton had figured out a way to rid himself of comment trolls, which he had earlier termed an "unmanageable risk". He added another trick recently that will hopefully go away with paywall-based access to local opinion; commenting on his column was not enabled. That's pretty wimpy. 

  • I'm hoping that any revenue stream realized will be put toward these and other improvements to to make it an even more attractive online destination for news and information, and not just something that gets all too easily ignored by the majority of Internet news junkies, who generally eschew anything with a price tag on it.
As much as I understand the Sentinel's action, I disagree with it on the grounds that without a commitment to innovation and added value, combined with a possibly lukewarm reception to the idea of paying for Internet content or subscribing to a 7-day print newspaper to access it, will not grow. 

Then again, if the Sentinel did nothing, it's quite possible that the entire operation, if not the newpaper industry itself, might be a victim of what is known as the tyranny of small decisions. A brief example is cited below:
The fact remains that each selection of x over y constitutes also a vote for eliminating the possibility thereafter of choosing y. If enough people vote for x, each time necessarily on the assumption that y will continue to be available, y may in fact disappear. And its disappearance may constitute a genuine deprivation, which customers might willingly have paid something to avoid.  1
Best of luck to Mr. Seaton, the Sentinel staff, and especially to Jim Spehar, who is moving his excellent column from the "unsustainable" (?) Grand Junction Free Press to a weekly slot on the paywalled local opinion page of Grand Junction's "chronicle of record".

Have a good week ahead.

1  Kahn AE (1988) The economics of regulation: principles and institutions Volume 1, pp 237–238. MIT Press.

1 comment:

dean0 said...

Maybe 10 or 12 years ago...When the DS became a morning paper instead of an evening paper, one of the sales representatives came into the retail outlet where I clerked and said: "Now you can get yesterdays news tomorrow" And it has been so true.

The DS web page is quite lacking in fresh content and that may be why they can't attract lucrative advertisers.

As left wing as the DS is I suspect they won't care if the populace of GJ becomes un-informed.