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.

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