Updated: Johnston Press To Charge For Local Papers Online

John Fry

Update: Johnston CEO John Fry tells Roy Greenslade that the small-scale trial will involve six papers’ sites in small-to-medium size UK towns. They are: the Worksop Guardian; the Ripley & Heanor News; the Whitby Gazette; the Northumberland Gazette; Carrick Gazette and the Southern Reporter in Scotland. These are relatively small papers covering semi-rural, tight-knit communities — will their readers take up the paid content offer, or ignore it altogether?

Has local UK newspaper publisher Johnston Press beaten Murdoch to the paywall? The Scotsman and Yorkshire Post publisher is to introduce subscription charges across a number of its weekly newspaper sites from next week “to find a sustainable business model going forward“, according to Holdthefrontpage, which says it has a leaked internal memo.

HTFP says the unidentified sites (JP has hundreds of weekly free and paid-for papers) will charge £5 for a three-month subscription. paidContent:UK has contacted the company’s head office and several company figures for comment; we’ll update when we find out more.

If you need a clue to JP’s content philosophy on this, here’s CEO John Fry praising Murdoch’s paid content plan on Scotsman.com last week: “Having examined JP’s traffic, the most valuable comes from loyal users. Those who come to JP from search engines tend to come from a sensationalist angle, and are therefore are not as valuable from an advertising point of view.”

Scotsman.com already charges for some “premium content”, (though as an occasional reader, I’ve never been asked to pay).

But is this what local newspapers and the future of local journalism really needs… ?

— If readers will only pay for content that’s unique and unavailable elsewhere, perhaps local sites have a distinct advantage in their patch and, in theory, a clear path to monetisation.

— But what if a rival publisher in the same town keeps their content free? Unless there’s a huge gulf in quality between local rivals, readers will have a very easy choice. Our paid content research showed that 95 percent of people would rather go elsewhere than pay for news online.

— Local publishers have far less to lose than the likes of News International from a digital ads point of view: Johnston’s digital ad revenue fell 18.8 percent in H109 (though the situation has improved slightly since then).

I fear JP is relying on the “brand” value of its local newspapers too much here and hoping that a town’s collective memory of reading a title for generations will translate into revenue online.

Readers will need a lot of convincing that the content on offer really is essential. Indeed, with no end in sight to the cuts in journalists’ jobs, the risk is the local journalism won’t be good enough to pay for in any medium.

Update 2: JP’s digital strategy director Lori Cunningham tells paidContent:UK that the trial will only last three months and is designed to test consumers’ attitudes to being asked to pay. “This is for us to understand directly the dynamics around consumer paid-for content,” she says, adding that it’s also an opportunity to figure out the relationship between readers’ print and online consumption. JP’s ad revenue has been not too hot this year, but Cunningham says this isn’t a silver bullet: “Ultimately advertising will continue — I don’t see paid-for content as a saviour or a direct replacement for that.”

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