August 14, 2013

SF Chronicle reverses on paywall because of #Demand

Why?

The short answer is that, worse than editorial shortfalls, it's got massive management incompetence.

Yes, on occasion, newspapers have abandoned paywalls after raising them. Who can forget the unlamented Times Select at the New York Times, after all?

But, in the "Great Paywall Rush" of the last 18 months or so, where more than one-third of US papers have now paywalled at least some content, including all Gannett items other than USA Today, and the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle is the first paper, to my knowledge, to abandon one.

The wall had only been up four months, which isn't enough time to test its effectiveness in terms of revenue, guaranteed non-skimming eyeballs for advertisers, etc.

So, why?

My header's a pun.

Demand Media, sadly known for low-pay "crank it out" filler items, apparently wanted it down.

The Chronicle's parent, Hearst, this spring tapped two top Demand execs to:
(D)igitally turbocharge and jumpstart its flagship but long-suffering newspaper.
A friend of mine speculates that's connected to this announcement.

KQED confirms that the pair of them made the decision. It adds this tidbit:
The Chronicle's former president, Mark Adkins, announced the paywall four months ago, calling the move "one more step in this Chronicle's journey through the digital age." Since then Adkins was transferred to Beaumont, Texas.
Boy, if that's not a fucking exile? But (see below), it's pretty deserved.

On the other hand, Demand hired the two just a month after putting up the paywall. And, the Chronicle's well-documented problems are on the editorial side, as the second link documents.

So, I'd say we can add management problems to editorial coverage problems. If it's true that the Chron is no longer in the US top 25 by circulation, the paywall didn't cause this. It's not a fix, but it's not the problem.

Of course, Gnu Media apple-polisher Matthew Ingram thinks this is good news.

Meanwhile, per Poynter, when your own staffers undercut the paywall, you've got problems beyond the coverage problem. Were I running the Chron, the next time I needed to swing the layoff axe, I know who'd get cut first. Editorial staff who deliberately undercut the paywall, even if it's kind of complicated.

That said, complicated it is! Running two different websites? Whoever convinced Atkins to start such a stupid idea is the one who should have been reassigned to Beaumont first. Though he still should have followed, for signing off on it. (More about how complicated it is here.)

And, you're right next to Silicon Valley, etc., and you come up with such craptacular ideas? You're lucky that your only daily competition is the wingnut Examiner Anschutz puts out.

This all said, much as I continue to find ways, more cumbersome all the time, to work around it, the Times' new paywall was done well. Start with 20 freebies on the meter, then, after you've gotten people hooked to a fair amount of free stuff, cut back to 10. Then, cut off freebie reading on Facebook links and defeat NoScript workarounds.

But, this move does not mean that paywalls in general are going to face new scrutiny.

Unfortunately, from what I've seen, a lot of media-related blogs are following Ingram's inane analysis as their lede.

===

Meanwhile, in journalism news of the weird, GateHouse is going to start a big design center in Austin.

Why?

It has no Texas papers, therefore increasing the possibility of errors made by out-of-state copy editors. While some jobs will be new rather than transfers, it will have a net loss, company -wide, I'm sure. And that idea of selling your design services? Probably won't fly; smaller folks will undercut you and  lot of bigger folks will likely continue to do it in-house.

Meanwhile, rather that do a design hub at one of its newspapers, it will probably pee away money on Austin rent costs, too.

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