A company that owns five newspapers in South Carolina, including The State, announced that it will soon start charging readers to view online news content, erecting what is known in the industry as a paywall.
The McClatchy Company announced July 27 it would start charging for online access to all its papers, with the full rollout beginning in the fourth quarter of this year.
It’s a trend that’s on the rise among big daily papers in the Palmetto State, and it follows a series of layoffs in recent years that have decimated newsrooms and lowered morale among employees.
Many South Carolina newspapers already have paywalls; others will start charging soon.
Newsroom layoffs came in part because big news companies conglomerated when times were good but had trouble maintaining high profit margins as advertising revenue peeled away during the Great Recession. Other reasons include shrinking subscriber bases as more people get their news digitally, and the rise of online services like Craigslist that have replaced newspaper classifieds.
Print ad sales continue to drop. From 2009 to 2010, at newspapers surveyed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, print ad sales still accounted for 92 percent of overall advertising revenue, but those revenues fell by an average of 9 percent.
“Thus the actual dollar gains were outnumbered by losses by a factor of 7-to-1 for those papers,” the organization wrote in March.
To make up for lost revenue, papers are asking their online readers to pony up if they want to consume the papers’ news via their websites.
South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers believes paywalls are vital for the subscription-based newspaper model.
“It’s the wave of the future,” he says. “I just think it’s necessary for the survival of newspapers to not give away the news.”
In South Carolina, the Greenville News was a beta test for the online paywall model for its parent company Gannett, Rogers says. In May, the independently owned Charleston Post & Courier rolled out a metered paywall for its website.
At least a dozen other daily or semi-daily papers across the state use paywalls, including the Sumter Item; the Pageland Progressive Journal; the Lancaster News; the Lexington County Chronicle; the Horry Independent; the (Cheraw) Link; the (Seneca) Journal; the (Camden) Chronicle Independent; the (Greenwood) Index Journal and the Gaffney Ledger, according to the state Press Association, of which Free Times is a member.
The State already charges online readers for some of its sports coverage, but all of its news is currently available for free on its website. The paper’s publisher, Henry Haitz, told Free Times he didn’t have anything to report on the paywall front when contacted about it for this story.
Ashley Landess, president of the limited-government South Carolina Policy Council, started an investigative newsroom called The Nerve based out of the group’s office in 2010. She hired Free Times news editor Eric Ward and Rick Brundrett, a longtime reporter at The State, paying them higher salaries then they were making at their papers.
The Nerve’s online news coverage, she says, is free and will stay that way because the Policy Council’s mission is not to profit, but to get the word out about what the government is doing with taxpayer money.
Landess doesn’t know whether more South Carolina papers charging for online content will drive increased traffic to websites like her organization’s, largely
because she doesn’t look at such papers as competitors.
“There might have been a lot of reasons why the mainstream media has crumbled a little, some it having to do with online media, but it’s worth asking if maybe some of it is because they lost their focus a bit and stopped doing what journalists used to do: following the money, reporting on politicians,” she says. “I believe that consumers get what they want one way or the other — they’re motivated to do that.”
Indeed, often the first places to cut in newsrooms are budgets for long, research-intensive investigatory reporting.
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, says consumers have traditionally paid for journalistic content directly and indirectly.
“The consumer is going to go where it’s either convenient or essential from their perspective,” he says. “If you feel that you need to know or want to know what’s in The New York Times, you’re not likely to be deterred by the paywall. Will that make a difference on the local level? ... it might, but only to the degree that [different papers] are seen as covering the same ground.”
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