Boise TV Station Capitalizes On The Idaho Statesman’s New Paywall

This week, USA Today publisher Larry Kramer said his paper isn’t “unique enough” to charge readers access to its online content.  Kramer, quoted in The Wrap, said, “There is so much national news out there…“I think we would lose more than we would gain.”

Paywalls started going up at newspapers and magazines years ago as the internet became one of the top destinations for information. Many people, especially people under 40, don’t spend money on print subscriptions like they used to. That’s forced newspapers to explore different ways to make money. But the debate over whether charging readers for access to online content is a smart business strategy, or a sustainable model, continues as big brands weigh in.

In Idaho, at least eight daily newspapers charge readers for web access.  The most recent paper to shift to a paywalled system is the state’s largest paper, The Idaho Statesman.

That move inspired Boise’s NBC affiliate, KTVB, to take direct aim at The Statesman with this spot:

The local TV station boasts all its web content is free.  Web content at my employer, StateImpact Idaho and Boise State Public Radio, isn’t behind a paywall, but we do rely on listener support (here’s a great explainer on how public radio stations are funded).

KTVB’s spot, and promotion of it on Twitter, sparked a discussion mostly among Idaho media.  Watching the exchanges unfold on Twitter (and I shared my two cents), I wondered if the wrong debate was happening.  In an age of media saturation, how do you justify to readers that your content, your journalism, is “unique enough” to put up that barrier to free access?  By the same token, free content certainly doesn’t always equal better content.

Here’s a few of the tweets I put together:


  • http://voices.idahostatesman.com/richert Kevin Richert

    Emilie: Good post. To me, it’s an extension of what newspapers have had to do from the start. From the beginning, we’d had to produce a unique (and comprehensive and quality) product that people would pay to purchase in print form. We’ve always had to produce a product worthy of readers’ investment of time — another scarce commodity. Now, we need to make sure to produce an unique (and comprehensive and quality) online product that readers will be willing to purchase. I’m biased, of course, but I think our newsroom can do that. I respect our free and paywall online competitors, but story for story, I’ll put our content up against anyone else in the market. Including our friends who produced this ad.

    • Emilie Ritter Saunders

      Thanks Kevin. And full disclosure, StateImpact Idaho/Boise State Public Radio subscribe to several Idaho newspapers, including the Statesman. Personally, I’ll always enjoy real newsprint and a cup of coffee in my hands on a Sunday morning.

  • http://KTVB.COM/ Don Day

    And I would put our free content up against theirs, also story for story. It’s a competitive news market to be certain.

    • http://KTVB.COM/ Don Day

      Oh, and also – Emilie, great analysis.

  • http://gumpole.blogspot.com/ Roger Plothow

    “By the same token, free content certainly doesn’t always equal better content.”

    No, free content virtually guarantees inferior content. Why? Because people will actually spend money for superior content. In what world is free stuff of higher quality than stuff you have to pay for?

    “But the debate over whether charging readers for access to online content is a smart business strategy, or a sustainable model, continues as big brands weigh in.”

    No, this debate is over, at least in the newspaper business. Eighty percent of newspapers now have some kind of pay wall, and it will soon by nearly 100 percent. Free content was always a bad idea. Compare the total local content in a single edition of any daily newspaper to that of a competing TV station. One day’s edition has more local content than a week of local TV newscasts, and that’s true in Boise.

    Want more abuse? http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/07/internet-underpants-and-everything.html

    • Emilie Ritter Saunders

      Thanks for the comment Roger. Perhaps I needed to define ‘free’. No media is free, the consumer pays for media/journalism in a lot of different ways. Whether you pay for cable, donate to your local public radio station, buy a Sunday paper at the grocery store or pay to read articles online – there is a cost incurred somewhere.

      And I’d argue the jury is very much still out on whether the newspaper industry can sustain itself on digital revenue. As stories like this one show: http://www.businessinsider.com/newspapers-are-losing-13-of-print-revenue-for-every-1-of-digital-revenue-2012-12, there is a lot of ground to make up.

      • Don Day

        And I would argue that in Mr. Plothow’s market, vastly more folks get their news and information from the KIFI News Group than the Post-Register. So folks have chosen: ad supported over subscription. The quality argument is unwarranted, and frankly, not based in reality. It’s a newspaper man’s argument – “our content is better because we were here first” – or something. Newspaper folks often look down their nose at TV folks (as is illustrated plainly above) – all the while their house is burning down.

        TV has been free for 60+ years and makes a MUCH higher margin than newspapers. When classifieds paid for the news operation, newspapers had a pretty good thing going. Then Craig Newmark came along and destroyed that silly model (free and instant of course trumping paid and slow – yes FREE over PAID). Then folks figured out… “oh hey… I can get my news and not pay for it? sweet.” Mr. Plothow’s paper, to its credit, never gave away content free – but then KIFI ate its lunch. LocalNews8.com served 67,000 folks last month. PostRegister? Just 16,000. As I noted – the people have spoken.

        Mr. Plothow is as wrong about Boise as he is about his own market. It may be true in big markets like Seattle that the newspapers are the news engine – but in this market it’s not. He might count drivel like comics and syndicated fluff and gardening feature as “content” – but local apples-to-apples content (LOCAL NEWS), it’s not what he would like to think. There are news outlets all over – Boise Weekly, StateImpact/BSR, Boise Weekly, and yes KTVB, KBOI & KIVI that combined generate far and away more content then the local paper (in fact, a couple of those generate more on their own than the paper). Add in BoiseGuardian, KBOI Radio, etc. – and there is ZERO reason to pay for local content when it is plentiful and free.

        Pretending that content is superior because it comes from an organization that owns a printing press (or leases access) is plainly a misread of the news environment these days. Once upon a time newspapers had more journalists (the only way they were actually superior) – but those days are quickly falling away, and no paywall will fix it.

        • http://gumpole.blogspot.com/ Roger Plothow

          Mr. Day could not possibly be more wrong.

          First, comparing web site “traffic” of a free site to a subscriber-based site is of no value whatsoever. We earn more in subscription income than a comparable free site earns in advertising. It’s an utterly false comparison.

          Second, assuming that web site stats establish that “vastly more people get their news and information from KIFI…” is wrong on many levels. The actual news casts and daily newspaper editions are still far and away the main products of each medium, and in that regard the Post Register is the clear leader. (For one thing, TV ratings done using diaries are notoriously unreliable, while the Post Register’s circulation is audited by a third party. For another we also reach most of our nonsubscribers with a weekly printed product.)

          Mr. Day’s online numbers are also way, way off. To be fair, getting web stats through third parties is a tricky business and the numbers are essentially meaningless. In October, The Post Register and its affiliated web sites generated 145,000 user visits and more than 1 million page views.

          Information superiority has absolutely nothing to do with the medium itself (or who came first). No one in the newspaper business suggests otherwise. Mr. Day sets up a straw man and neatly knocks it down, but it’s not an elegant or unique performance. Take my challenge — count up all the local information pieces contained in any single edition of the Idaho Statesman (news stories, calendar items, advertising, obituaries, announcements, letters to the editor, editorials, columns, etc.), then do the same for any TV broadcast. Just do the math. It’s not close. Leave out the syndicated material — just count the original local news, information and advertising content. Come on, I dare you.

          It’s a myth that TV margins are universally higher than those for newspapers. TV in eastern Idaho is faring better now that it has gone through drastic consolidation, but I wouldn’t trade places. It’s fair to say that margins in either business aren’t what they used to be, but we’re talking about industries in which 30, 40, even 50 percent margins were commonplace.

          Finally, Mr. Day gets it exactly backwards when comparing markets like Seattle to smaller markets. Newspapers in smaller markets such as eastern Idaho are far more dominant than those in metros markets. It appears the Mr. Day is simply making this stuff up. The Post Register has more people in its newsroom and advertising department than the TV stations combined. Still. Mr. Day, you are operating under a broad misconception because you make assumptions rather than gathering data.

          The truth is, local TV and newspapers will co-exist for a long time. Neither is about to disappear, though both are going through dramatic and, ultimately, healthy and necessary changes. It’s not a zero sum game, as so many geniuses would have us believe. Both media serve a unique purpose and serve their markets in different ways. The Internet, smart phones or whatever comes next won’t change that. But, to assume that all anyone needs to be fully informed is free news sources is simply and unarguably wrong. Yes, one can survive this way, but one can’t be a full participant in his or her community without the full complement of free and paid information sources.

          • http://twitter.com/DonLDay Don Day

            I’m not going to escalate a silly argument any further. I respect where you come from but know (based on extensive study) that what you profess is flawed.

            Best of luck with the fire hose.

          • rplothow

            ” … but (I) know (based on extensive study) that what you profess is flawed.”

            Congratulations. You, sir, are a genius.I wish I had thought to study the issues extensively.

      • http://gumpole.blogspot.com/ Roger Plothow

        Emilie:

        I’d go a step further to argue that neither television nor newspapers can sustain themselves with digital revenue, and neither should try, at least at this point. Digital is a complementary revenue source and will continue to be for a long time, just as it is for television. Our legacy models still sustain us. TV has the same problem — traditional TV spots earns far more revenue than the same volume of online advertising. For one thing, we all know that no one looks at online ads. We have to figure out how to fix that problem first.

        As for free versus paid, part of the issue is where the revenue goes. When you buy a TV set or pay your Internet or cable bill, none of that revenue goes to the local content providers. When you buy a newspaper or pay for an online subscribtion, all of that revenue goes to the newspaper. That’s an enormous advantage that I know my TV friends would love to have.