ODT editor Barry Stewart on paywalls, the decline of print and the advantage of being ‘hyper-local’

The Otago Daily Times (ODT) will take the leap and put its content behind a paywall in April, following the lead of the Ashburton Guardian, the Gisborne Herald and the National Business Review in charging readers to view content.

Print subscribers will automatically be given access to the content, but online readers will be required to pay $27 a month after expending their allowance of free stories.

“It just makes economic sense to draw a line in the sand and put a value on our quality journalism and in depth coverage of the people and issues in our region,” says ODT editor Barry Stewart.

The executive teams at the NZ Herald and Stuff undoubtedly also value their journalism, but they are yet to take the plunge—despite both having toyed with the idea.

There is certainly a concern from both of these publications that a decision to go behind a paywall would see the audience simply migrate to one of the other national news providers. And this seems reasonable concern, given that news consumers have access to Radio New Zealand, RadioLive, Newstalk ZB, NZ Herald, Stuff, Newshub and One News.

As Hive News founder Bernard Hickey previously pointed out, ‘it’s seven flavours of the same story within seconds’.

In the local context, the paywall issue sometimes feels like the final scene of Reservoir Dogs, with everyone standing, guns drawn, waiting to shoot, while scoping out the scene.

The ODT’s decision to pull the trigger comes down to the fact that it doesn’t see itself as simply churning out the standard national news fare.

“We cannot win the clickbait war that other, bigger, organisations are engaged in so we are investing in what we do best: engaging with our community. And we’re confident readers will support us,” says Stewart.

The ODT has an advantage in having journalists on the ground in Dunedin, reporting on the stories that matter in the region.

“The quality and depth of journalism available in the market is outstanding. I know this because my Flipboard feed delivers to my iPad a personalised stream of news, politics, sport, entertainment, culture, marketing, design, big reads etc from leading publications throughout the world. I am overwhelmed by information and choice. But how do I find out about what is happening in my community?  The answer, of course, is your local daily newspaper.”

As indicated by the success of the NBR example, niche-based news sites do seem to work best when placed behind a paywall. If a publication is providing in-depth coverage on stories directly relevant to a community, then the readers seem willing to pay for it.

The question now comes down to whether ODT has a strong enough niche in order to attract a paying audience. And Stewart believes it does.

“It is the exclusive hyper-local coverage of events that Otago Daily Times readers value and this is what gives us a significant point of difference over other media outlets,” says Stewart.

There certainly is truth to this. The ODT has been one of the most consistent performers in Nielsen’s readership reports, and its circulation has also remained relatively stable (dropping slightly from 36,000 copies at the end of 2014 to 35,000 copies at the end of last year).

However, no traditional publication is impervious to the decline of the print industry.

“[Local daily newspapers are] under threat as shrinking advertising revenues impact on their ability to fund their journalism.”

Stewart believes the timing is right for the publication to move behind a paywall, and he believes it’s an important step in ensuring that news media—particularly publications telling important local stories—have a future.

“We are reading almost daily of redundancies and restructuring as media organisations fight for the attention of readers and look for revenue in an increasingly tangled digital web.”

ODT, of course, isn’t alone in the struggle for financial sustainability. This news comes off the back of major restructuring at all the major media organisations in New Zealand.

It’s also significant that it happens at a time when the UK publication the Independent has ditched its print publication and gone digital-only (the publication is now looking to fund its journalism with branded content, which obviously poses a whole range of problems itself).

The ODT appears to have no intention to drop its print publication at this stage, and that makes sense given that its print subscribers will make up a significant portion of its online paying subscriber audience. 

And as former Herald editor Tim Murphy pointed out in his excellent piece for the Spinoff, US studies have shown that converting just two to five percent of an online audience into paying subscribers can generate decent revenue. 

That said, there are no guarantees of success. And you can rest assured that the other major news providers in the market will watch the ODT’s move closely. Whether this leads to another publisher pulling the trigger is yet to be seen.  

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