A lesson from the past speaks to the pay wall debate

A recent discussion I had about online pay walls  stirred an old memory that, in today’s debate, still holds a current lesson.

In the early 1980s, I worked for a small newspaper group in northern Illinois. I was managing editor at the one daily newspaper the group owned; the remaining papers were weeklies in small communities. A corporate decision as made to start a new weekly in the second largest town in our county, which also happened to be the county seat. It was the only part of the county we didn’t have a presence in, but the town itself had a long-established daily newspaper owned by another group.

The man assigned to the project was a young, out-of-the-box thinker. His plan was to launch the paper with free blanket delivery to all households for the first six weeks. During that time, a massive subscription drive would try to sign up  readers who were willing to pay a smaller price than the daily newspaper – and get a local paper weekly.

However, as the end of the free sampling period neared, few new subscribers were signing up.  So, to show what these potential subscribers would be missing when the freebies stopped, the young GM had an idea.

One the first week of paid delivery, two sets of papers were printed. Subscribers got the normal newspaper. For the rest, they found a similar newspaper on their driveways– only without news copy, photos or advertising. It was a paper that contained only headlines and photo captions — and lots of white space — with a banner line saying “See what you missed.” A postcard to subscribe to the paper was inserted inside.

The two-paper deliveries went on for another two weeks, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the event failed to grab a single new subscriber.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. The small editorial staff did a nice  job providing news and features, and the advertising staff did get a number of commitments for the start-up. What they failed to do was sell the paper to readers, who felt the paper just wasn’t valuable enough to their lives or not unique enough to switch from the already-established newspaper.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and we’re watching a number of news web sites try to establish pay sites with limited luck. It seems that, unless you’re the only game in town, online readers aren’t finding much interest in blanket subscriptions.

It’s not that people don’t want to pay. They just want value in return for what they’re paying for.

Are you sure you’re providing that?

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