This post is the fifth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on the expectations and role of pay walls for a collegiate paper.
It seems as though the age of pay walls for news sites is among us. The New York Times has kept their site under a pay wall for more than a year while Gannett, the countries largest newspaper publisher, announced in February a wide-spread pay wall implementation for all of their 80-plus newspapers around the country, including the Reno Gazette-Journal (which began last week.) Though it’s much too early what kind of role, if any, pay walls will play in the future of news, one college newspaper is fully embracing and running with the idea of a pay wall, to both the approval and dismay of others.
Oklahoma State’s Daily O’Collegian implemented potentially the first pay wall for a collegiate newspaper nearly a year ago, and growth has been steady ever since, according to this MediaShift article. Charging $10 for unlimited access to the website, the Daily O’Collegian gained about 175 subscribers, exceeding expectations and prompting the paper to raise the price to $15 a year. Response to the paper’s decision has been mixed (much like the discussion on pay walls in general), with College Media Matters blogger Dan Reimold seeing the decision as blocking student access and unlikely to work widespread, while Alexa Capeloto from MediaShift claiming the move as visionary and as a way to train journalists and consumers that news won’t always be free.
Though it may seem logical to rely on the ‘regular’ arguments for pay walls, it’s incredibly important to remember the vast differences between collegiate and professional press. For one, collegiate papers admittedly offer less of a total package than regular newspapers, with smaller budgets, staff and resources to go around. Unlike the readership for professional papers, collegiate readership is extremely temperamental, with only college-aged readers and a few alumni to consume and react to the product. Additionally, as Reimold points out, most collegiate websites are just reposted articles from the print edition, with few if any online content. Why would a student pay for content they can get for free in the print edition?
So if the collegiate audience is much more different than a professional one, how can pay walls work? Simple; be really freaking big. Papers such as the Daily Tar Heel (UNC), Daily Emerald (U of Oregon) and the Daily O’Collegian are more likely to have success with pay walls because they employ huge numbers of people and run essentially a regular daily newspaper. Such papers usually have wealthy or influential alumni and donors who can draw attention to the paper, like Roger Ebert did for his collegiate paper, The Daily Illini, in February. As Clay Shirky writes in this blog post, pay wall readers are a special breed of consumers that have an active desire to support institutions, such as a college newspaper.
But most college papers aren’t like that at all. Most have a few overworked staff members, putting out a few pages per week and occasionally updating their website. Smaller papers (I’ll include the Nevada Sagebrush on that list) cannot use pay walls because the content they provide isn’t worth paying for in the eyes of readers. Unless a paper is offering daily, interesting and relevant content, I don’t see how a pay wall can work for the vast majority of college papers. Rather than focus on the likelihood of a pay wall working, college papers should focus on making their website something students would be willing to pay for. One cannot have poor content and expect to be paid for the privilege of seeing it.
Examples such as The Daily Collegian will most likely turn out to be exemptions to the rule, as financially-pinched collegiate papers attempt to find other ways to stay in business. Pay walls aren’t the way.