Why I’m on the Fence About The Ledger’s Paywall

The digital revolution has put newspapers under intense pressure.

That being said, like most Polk County residents, I was surprised to see Jerome Ferson’s column in Sunday’s edition of The Ledger announcing that the paper was transitioning to a digital subscription model. Readers are going to have to pay to read The Ledger online beginning this weekend.

This isn’t a new discussion or a decision made in the past few weeks. This idea was being considered when I was in the newsroom five years ago, and gained some more traction when The New York Times introduced its paywall. The Times used to own The Ledger before selling to Halifax Media a couple of years ago.ledgercountdown

Other newspapers have done this too, such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Wall Street Journal. Truthfully, management wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t consider online subscriptions as a way to generate more cash in the face of declining circulation and reduced print ad revenue.

But I’m not sold this was the right move for The Ledger, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get the online subscription.

My wife and I have a Sunday-only subscription, meaning we would pay an extra $6.95 per month for unlimited online access (everyone will have five free articles on TheLedger.com each month). Readers with a daily print subscription won’t be charged more for online, while readers with no print subscription must pay $9.95 per month.

I’ve  forked out money for content I consider valuable before. Each year I pay $40 for the ESPN Insider access, which includes stories, rankings, analysis, etc., from experts who can’t be accessed anywhere else. And as I mentioned, I pay for a Sunday subscription to The Ledger, which is about $80 per year. A big reason for that is, admittedly, coupons, but I also like that the Sunday paper is still substantive compared to the rest of the week with more content and features.

I check TheLedger.com every morning for headlines and read a couple of stories per day online. So if I didn’t get the online subscription, I would miss some things. But with social media (I follow key reporters and organizations), Bay News 9, Bright House Sports Network, the Tampa Tribune, etc., I would stay up to date on probably 98 percent of anything on TheLedger.com. What I’ll miss are some features and in-depth investigative reporting, of which there might be five stories per month that I feel I need to read. And remember, I get five stories per month free.

There isn’t a ton on TheLedger.com that is truly exclusive, and what is sorely lacking are any voices that I feel I MUST read to get their take on local life, whether in sports or religion or local government.

The decision-makers are trying to frame this as a way to “Believe in Your Community” by paying $120 or $84 per year for online access to The Ledger. I feel like I believe in my community by serving local organizations, promoting the area to friends and by supporting local businesses. The Ledger is a local business, but I already pay $80 per year for Sunday and access the website which gives impressions and increases the ad rates that the paper can charge.

Personally, I don’t like feeling guilted into something. Jerome’s column on Sunday was fairly straightforward and laid out the reasons they were introducing the plan. But the countdown ticker on TheLedger.com home page and the phrase “Believe in Your Community” is a little overkill.

The reaction online was resoundingly negative, as was to be expected. There’s no doubt that the website will see decreased traffic, and it’s just a matter of how much. That decrease in traffic will lead to advertisers demanding cheaper ad rates, which will further decrease ad revenue that I’m not sure online subscription revenue can overcome. The paper is running the risk of out-of-sight, out-of-mind if readers change their habits and discover they can get news elsewhere and not feel like their quality of life is any worse.

There are other things that could have been done, with the first option being to generate more ad revenue, especially online. There aren’t a ton of local ads on TheLedger.com, maybe a banner ad or a featured ad in the main story box on the home page. From what I can tell, only PolkPreps.com has many local ads of the subsites such as Politics in Polk or Timeout. Maybe advertisers don’t feel that The Ledger is the best place to reach customers, which is a bigger problem and would require a shift in content and marketing to get the product into more hands.

Other options would be to cut some days from print delivery to save on paper costs (the most expensive part of a newspaper, besides labor). You’d lose some ad revenue, and I don’t know for sure if they’d come out ahead. It would also allow them to beef up the Sunday paper even more, adding more exclusive content to that edition and better commentary. That might generate more ad and Sunday subscription revenue.

They could also do an “a la carte” online pay model, where readers are charged, say, $.10 per story. The issue there would be getting people to go through the hassle of registering, but it would give readers more control over how much they’re charged.

Again, I can’t see the paper’s books. I don’t know how bad things are, but I just know that this decision is going to lead to an exodus of readers. How large? That’s the big question, and The Ledger’s future might depend on the answer.

I still have a lot of friends who work there, so this is a tough decision for me. I haven’t made up my mind yet on whether I’ll pay for unlimited online access. I want The Ledger to make it because I know the importance of journalism in a free society. I also need to make choices with my money in a tight economy that are best for my family, and I don’t believe this was the best way for the paper to try to get more revenue.

So, I’m conflicted, and I’m going to be very interested to watch this play out.

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