Paywall’s future: Deep in the heart of Texas

After a lot of hemming and hawing over whether content on the Internet should be free-range, a number of newspapers have decided to set up paywalls on their online offerings.

Most notably, of course, is the New York Times, which enacted digital subscriptions this month (It had been phasing in the transition, it goes full-hog on Monday). Everyone is focused on whether the Times can be successful in charging digital subscriptions for a product that readers accessed for free for over a decade. But the Times isn’t the only paper to unveil a paywall program for its online offerings, but obviously has gotten the most press.

However, if we want a true response to how the public will react to paying for online content, the Times shouldn’t be the flag bearer. The Times stands above the field, in a strata of journalism that (whether warranted or not) has a large audience appeal that extends far beyond its core circulation market. The Times does not compete with the New York Post of Daily News for a share of audience in the city. It competes on a larger level with CNN, the BBC, Times of London, and others that consider themselves “the world’s newspaper.”

As a result, the Times’ paywall may be a success for them, only because its audience extends beyond the geographical limits of its home base. If we want to get a good feel for how the public will accept or reject paywalls, we need to look at another paper’s efforts.

We need to keep our eyes on Dallas.

The Morning News,  with far less fanfare, enacted a paywall earlier this month. Publisher Jim Maroney, in a memo to the staff, admits it’s a gamble , but notes the math justifies trying it out.

What makes the Dallas model different from the NYTimes is that the Morning News is a newspaper that focuses on and needs to maintain itself in its core market of north Texas. And it is also a market that has many competing news sources,  from the down-the-road rival Fort Worth Star-Telegram to Pegasus News, local TV and radio stations and several smaller community-focused publications.

Dallas is a demographic microcosm of many large metropolitan areas, and while the Morning News may dominate the market, whether it can remain dominant with a paywall in place remains to be seen. But it will be clearer by the end of the year whether Dallasites accept the fact that content will not come with a price, or whether they believe what the Morning News offers can be gotten from free from the competing sources.

While the  Times will survive whether the paywall system is successful or not (and my guess is that people who like what the Times offers will pay for it), what happens with the Morning News may either make it stronger, or hurt it substantially. But you’ve got to give the folks in Texas a hand for getting off the fence and trying something. 

All pundits’ eyes are on the New York Times to see if paywalls can be a success. But for publishers, what plays in Dallas will play throughout the nation.

New tech center looking to make Elgin ‘E-City’

NOTE: This is a reproduction of a column I currently write for my employer, The Daily Herald Business Ledger of suburban Chicago, that was posted Wednesday, March 23.

Inside Elgin’s best-known historic building, Lasse Ingebretsen is plotting the city’s future.
His mission: To turn Elgin into “E-City.”
Ingebretsen is executive director of the Elgin Technology Center, a not-for-profit venture that focuses on bringing together the area’s technology talent and linking them to companies that need their help.
The ETC currently has about 80 members, from college graduates looking for their first job to companies with as many as 450 employees. Its members range from people and small companies looking for work to small and mid-sized companies seeking expertise, and its talent pool ranges from programmers and software developers to IT specialists as well as e-commerce, database and web developers. About 50 percent of the membership are startup and small companies, while another 30 percent are individuals looking for jobs, according to Ingbretsen.
The overall goal is to create an “IT ecosystem” in Elgin that would create an atmosphere of development and collaboration among the members, Ingebretsen said. That, in turn, will catch the eye of regional and national companies that have projects which require the expertise ETC members have to offer.
“This is all about local sourcing,” Ingebretsen said, “In fact, this is a direct attack on outsourcing. It can actually cost a company more to send a project overseas.”
The ETC’s base of operations is on the second floor of the Elgin Tower Building, a historic landmark that stands tall in the center of the city’s downtown. From there, members can rent office space for as little as $150 a month and also have use of a conference/training area and a tech reference center. In addition, the site provides a foundation where members can collaborate, share information and stay current with changes in their specialties.
Renovations of the floor started in January, and five member companies moved in during February. Ingebretsen’s goal is to have 115 companies in the building by 2015.
Ingebretsen is keenly aware of the significance of launching a tech venture in the Tower Building — which still features elevators operated by a person. Built in 1929, the building opened at the start of the Great Depression, but continues to survive through numerous economic cycles.
“People worked here and struggled through (The Great Depression) and they were better for it in the 40s and 50s,” he said. “We’re reinventing Elgin right now and what a great place this is to start that reinvention.”
For Jen Howver, owner of VOD Communications, it was the opportunity to network with tech professionals and be a part of a downtown revitalization that lured her to become the first ETC member to move into the Tower Building.
“I’m an Internet geek,” said Howver, a social networking and marketing specialist. “But I saw the potential of networking and connecting with people in other technical industries.”
She added having a physical space to conduct teaching sessions and meet with current and potential clients has proved valuable as well. And, like other members, she is using her expertise to expand the center’s online presence and help connect through social networking with potential clients and donors.
“There are a lot of untapped opportunities through places like LinkedIn and Facebook,” she said. 
The ETC is governed by a three-member board of directors — of which Ingebretsen is not a member — and members also serve on one of four work groups, ranging from membership service and infrastructure groups to an employer relations group that promotes the ETC’s services to potential clients.
Another group is research and development group, which will keep members up-to-date on new developments and enhancements in the technology world. This group will also do beta testing for companies and share its findings and information with its members.
“This group will look at what’s developing out there so the ETC doesn’t fall behind,” Ingebretsen said. “We know what Microsoft and Apple are working on before our customers.”
The project is being funded primarily through Ingbretsen’s database development company, Castleway Tech. He hopes as the ETC becomes larger and more developed, it will attract the interest of larger companies, such as Microsoft, that would also be willing to provide funding.
The seed for the ETC sprouted from Ingebretsen’s days at Harvard University, where he went to study after receiving degrees from Elgin Community College and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. While at Harvard, he became involved with the One Kendall Square project in Cambridge, Mass. Developers there converted a former industrial area into an IT and biotech center, which now hosts more than 150 companies.
Ingebretsen figures Elgin could undergo a similar transformation. As the ETC develops into a central hub for technology-based knowledge and talent, companies will look to Elgin for project work and, possibly, relocation. In addition, the people that will be working out of the Tower Building will have a positive residual effect on downtown Elgin as they will want to shop and eat locally.
“We are creating an economic engine,” he said. “As we nurture the IT ecosystem and make it more diverse, it will become more stable. Once we’re really established here, it will stick with Elgin.”
Although Ingebretsen is devoting time and money into the project, he stresses that its success lies in its membership.
“These are the can-do people. These are the ones who can really create the system,” he said. “Our goal is to make this a nationally-recognized tech center.”