Cliff Notes

How much is news worth? New Houston Chronicle website says pay up to read more

How much is news worth? New Houston Chronicle website says pay up to read more

It's a sad truth: Newspapers are dying.

Having worked at the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle for three decades before joining CultureMap, it pains me to state the obvious. Newspaper readers are like Republican voters: They're old, they're white and they don't like change.

As circulation continues to dwindle, newspapers find themselves in an odd predicament: They are furiously seeking ways to get readers to buy something online that they have given away for free since the inception of the Internet.

 What, no Ken Hoffman for free? 

The Chronicle is the latest newspaper to charge for columns and stories that could previously be accessed with a simple click on the computer. It launched HoustonChronicle.com on Sunday, a pay site that costs $2.50 per week to access if you are not already a newspaper subscriber.

The newspaper will continue to operate the free chron.com, offering news, weather, pop culture and the like. But most columnists, along with "deep analysis, enterprise reporting, exclusive photos....plus everything found in our your daily newspaper," will be behind the paywall, according to a letter to readers in Sunday's print edition.

What, no Ken Hoffman for free?

Other newspapers have tried varying degrees of a paywall without much success.

In 2005, the New York Times launched a paywall that sounds suspiciously like the Chron's. Times Select put popular columnists like Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman behind the paywall, charging readers $49.95 a year for access. The columnists hated it because they were less accessible and readers stayed away in droves. 

The paper ditched the idea two years later.

 The Chronicle's model seems patterned after The Boston Globe, which went to a two-site strategy last year. 

More than a year-and-a-half ago, the Times went to a "metered" paywall that cuts off access after 20 stories, thus encouraging readers to purchase a digital subscription (the number of stories was recently reduced to 10). It now has more than 566,000 digital subscribers, raking in about $100 million in revenue a year.

Since then, just about every other newspaper has jumped in. The Los Angeles Times instituted a metered paywall in March and soon afterward, an industrious writer for LA Weekly told readers how to get around the 15-story monthly limit (open a new browser or remove all "cookies" from your web history).

The Dallas Morning News put a large portion of its material behind a paywall on its website a year ago and has lost more than one-third of its audience. But the company plans to continue charging for access.

The Chronicle's model seems patterned after The Boston Globe, which went to a two-site strategy last year. The Globe launched a pay site, BostonGlobe.com, with serious news to complement its sillier Boston.com site, which featured such stories as "The Sexiest Vampires on Screen" and "Massachusetts transgender inmate fighting for electrolysis" in a recent edition.

Subscriptions to the Boston Globe pay site have been sluggish, with only 18,000 subscribers through last spring, leading the paper to tout a free trial offer. Makes you wonder what will transpire in Houston.

I realize papers are in a tough spot and are desperate for more revenue, but the paywall doesn't make a lot of sense — even if it is a harbinger of a time in the not-too distant future when newspapers are no longer printed on paper. The two-pronged site seems awfully confusing and, with so many other sources on the web, I'm convinced that readers will be savvy enough to find the information they need elsewhere (if you're a first time reader of CultureMap, please come back.)

Any time the free flow of news and information is restricted, everyone loses. 

Houston Chronicle, houstonchronicle.com
No, it's not the newspaper - it the new houstonchronicle.com
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