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ANALYSIS | Paywall Could Diminish Hartford Courant’s Watchdog Role

by | Dec 29, 2014 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Business, Media Matters, Opinion

The newspaper industry needs more experiments in how to grow the revenue that funds local journalism. We’ve lost hundreds of reporters in recent years following the decline in print advertising and circulation, and companies’ failure to replace it with enough digital revenue.

Readers who complain about the introduction of paywalls are met with a predictable reaction from veteran journalists who feel there’s a moral obligation, if not a business model, in people paying to see the work their decades of expertise and everyday hard work has produced.

But so far, paywalls haven’t been about getting people to pay for online content. They are a strategy for getting as much money as possible out of print subscribers by “bundling” online access and increasing rates. Only a few exceptions (i.e. the New York Times and Wall Street Journal) have built a sizable base of paid online-only readership, and they don’t resemble the dynamic faced by local newspapers.

The Hartford Courant is the latest to begin charging for online content. Its pricing model also revolves around print circulation, but is built on a more earnest belief that people will pay for certain kinds of online content.

The New York Times’ “metered paywall” model adopted by many publications allows readers to access a certain number of stories, typically 5 to 10, free online each month. They have to pay for a digital subscription (almost always bundled with print) to go beyond that, or find their way around the paywall through search engine referral, social media exceptions, or a combination of reading from home, work, and mobile.

The Courant, instead, is putting certain “premium” content behind a paywall that can only be accessed if you pay for a digital subscription. What is considered “premium” is likely to evolve and even be designated on a case-by-case basis on certain days, but out of the gate it includes the work of investigative reporter and state government watchdog Jon Lender and columnists such as Colin McEnroe, Kevin Rennie, and Jeff Jacobs.

The bottom line is that far fewer people are going to read and talk about some of the most important accountability journalism produced by the Hartford Courant (or anyone) in Connecticut.

According to the subscription deals currently advertised on the Courant’s website, it will cost $130 a year for digital-only access to this work. For that same price, you can get the Sunday print edition of the Courant for free. For $25 more a year, you can also get Thursday through Sunday print editions. And for $207 a year, you can get digital access plus print seven days a week.

Lender does amazing work. Jacobs is, hands down, the best sports columnist in Connecticut. Rennie breaks state political news all the time. McEnroe is hilarious, brave, and smart. But the number of people who aren’t already print subscribers and would pay $130 a year to read them could fit comfortably in the Courant’s Hartford newsroom.

The state’s largest newspaper joins some smaller competitors in burying work that could have a significant impact, if people beyond print subscribers actually saw it. Hearst’s newspapers in Fairfield County have experimented with running some of their strongest weekend enterprise reporting as “print only.” The Republican-American of Waterbury, whose state government reporter, Paul Hughes, regularly provides unique insights into public policy, has a hard paywall on pretty much all of its online content. Maybe that’s forced some print subscribers to hold on longer than they would have otherwise, slowed the decline and saved some newsroom jobs. But the impact of the work those reporters and editors are doing is muted and limited to greater Waterbury.

That’s bad for public discourse, government accountability, and democracy at a time when we need to be engaging and evangelizing readers on the value of strong accountability reporting.

Lender’s work, for example, has brought down corrupt public officials who had a lot of power over vulnerable people’s lives. He has also exposed the corruption of powerful people who faced virtually no consequences after his columns were published. Newsrooms are tackling accountability journalism with fewer resources and against governments and organizations increasingly brazen about withholding information that belongs to the public. But they are also battling an apathetic citizenry.

Forget putting Lender’s work behind a paywall. Newspapers have to be consistent and creative just to get people to care about the kind of abuse he uncovers.

Meanwhile, people will still be able to read stories like this brief on a woman accused of shoplifting groceries in Waterford for free, and they will!

We certainly do need experiments in sustainable funding for local journalism, and there will be much trial and error in the process. But to assess whether a paywall truly “works,” you have to agree on what that means. Some newspaper chains are using paywalls as a short-term, print-centric strategy which, combined with newsroom cuts, helps maintain profits as the business winds down. A digital strategy that supports local journalism in the long-term won’t be bundled with print. And hopefully, the most important local journalism will see as wide an audience, engagement, and influence as its creators can arrange.

Matt DeRienzo is the former editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press, Connecticut Magazine and other Digital First Media publications in Connecticut and former publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington. Email him .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him on Twitter at @mattderienzo.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(10) Archived Comments

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | December 29, 2014  7:59am

not many people are going to pay for online access to the courant.  the print version has been in decline for more than a decade and is just a shadow of it’s former self.  do you seriously believe people are going to pay for the work of the 4 people you mention?  come’on dude, get a grip.

If you really know a story that Lender is writing about, you know he doesn’t. Jacobs’ work is ok for free.  The “to witless” column is more often than not formulaic and boring - though a couple weeks ago he did an outstanding job.  Rennie’s work is pretty hip - we all dig when he breaks some dirt on some arrogant loser - but pay for it??

so, the paywall will fail.  we are in desperate need of some heavy hitting Gonzo journalism (Rennie gets close at times), until that happens the nations oldest continuously running paper will continue to degenerate…......


posted by: joemanc | December 29, 2014  8:11am

For now, if you want to get around the paywall to read a story of interest, just google the story’s headline - and you can read it for free. The same also works with the WSJ and NY Times. It’s a pain, but they purposely set it up that way so take advantage of it.

posted by: jim black | December 29, 2014  9:15am

What watchdog role are you talking about? Why would you need more money to let Malloy and the democrat controlled legislature do whatever they want. It doesn’t cost anything to look the other way. Be real.

posted by: bob8/57 | December 29, 2014  9:22am


To cut off the nose to spite the face. Mediocrity slouches onward.

posted by: Noteworthy | December 29, 2014  9:23am

I was wondering why I could rarely if ever find their articles online. While hiding excellent work and making you pay,  the Courant does a poor job of telling you how to access it or where it’s available.

posted by: Mitch1964 | December 29, 2014  9:58am

DeRienzo is, thankfully, “former” editor of the NH Register. Under him, the NHR became infused with leftwing bias on everything, teeing off many of its readers who didn’t want to pay to read liberal propaganda and leftwing columnists.  The Courant is almost as bad.  Fact is, few people want to pay to read propaganda. Real journalism by unbiased reporters, and good columns by intelligent writers, is a thing of the past.  That is why they’re having such financial problems and “paywalls” to raise money.

posted by: UpsideDown | December 29, 2014  4:14pm

you can get around the HC paywall by simply hitting the Escape key just as the page begins to load. It may take a couple of tries but it will work.

posted by: dano860 | December 29, 2014  5:44pm

I used to pick up two papers on Sunday’s, my brother-in-law did the same. We were used to paying the price and then one day the straw that broke the old camels back came. We already had to pay a delivery premium since we are out of the Hartford area but the price increase was the end of Sunday papers.
We obviously need reporters and methods of distribution although ‘paywalls’ are not the answer. Paying for a service you enjoy is fine but the predominantly left leaning Courant isn’t it. Colin and Jeff are predictable as are a few of the other regulars. The editorials are also predictable and left of center most of the time.
The Norwich Bulletin is the paper of record in the east but their coverage spotty and weak for news but Ray Hackett is good.
Creativity is lacking in the print world.

posted by: TCM | December 29, 2014  11:04pm

I would not pay even $ 1.00 for ten years of this second rate so called newspaper, whether print or online or both

posted by: shinningstars122 | January 1, 2015  7:16am


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