5 things I think I think about the Tampa Bay Times implementing a paywall

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The Tampa Bay Times will install a paywall on TampaBay.com, charging readers who consume more than 15 pages per month, Times Chairman Paul Tash announced yesterday. 

Instead of five thing I think I think about today’s edition of the Times‘, here are five things I think I think about the Times‘ decision to implement a paywall.

First of all, “It’s not a tumor!” I think of that line from Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Copevery time I hear or read Tash insist that the new paywall is not a paywall; instead, it is a “meter” or “metered paywall” or some other such thing.

But who can blame Tash for resisting such a description? Paywall sounds like something used to keep the East Germans out of West Berlin. Its striking to me that the best an industry comprised of wordsmiths could come up with is a foreboding term like “paywall.”

For what it’s worth, “meter” ain’t much better. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear that word is parking meters, which are annoying and are themselves associated with parking tickets.

You’re not going to hear me object to the Times charging online readers for access to its site, because “good journalism” needs to be paid for and all of that happy horsesh*t. But at the end of the day, blame Google for all of this. So much of the matrix defining the economics of online advertising is framed by Google’s ridiculous notion of per-click valuation. As in, a news site like the Times charges a tenth of a penny because a viewer clicked through an ad for a car dealership on its site. 

That this system does not really work except for traffic hounds like BuzzFeed or the Drudge Report or Gawker is what’s really killing journalism. Or at least not allowing it to live, because at the current rates, there is just no way that the Times can bring in enough revenue from online advertising to keep the lights on.

SaintPetersBlog, like Politico, does not buy into the pay-per-click or even pay-per-view model that is hamstringing valuable websites like TampaBay,com. That’s because not all readers are the same.

Earlier this week after Politico owner Robert Allbritton bought Capital New York, a New York-focused digital-only publication. Jim VandeHei, a Politico founding editor and former reporter at the Washington Post, was asked whether there was any concern about Capital New York’s relatively low site traffic numbers. When asked if there was a mandate to boost the traffic numbers, VandeHei replied, “High traffic is way overrated. … The advertisers we want are the knowing ones seeking to influence a very attractive and hard-to-reach set of readers. If we deliver those readers, the traffic numbers will mean little. … “

Likewise, I’d rather reach the 25,000 readers who make-up the government and political and media class in Florida, as well as informed observers of media and politics, rather than 250,000 ordinary Joes. On the other hand, the Times, with its comics page and coupons and sports section, obviously wants to reach a broader audience.

And therein lies the rub.

The readers most likely to pay for a digital subscription are not the ones buying the newspaper for the comics page or the coupons. 

In fact, what’s most problematic about the Times‘ paywall, err, meter is that subscribers to the print edition do not receive free access to the digital edition, as is the case with almost every other newspaper subscription, including one to the New York Times. Readers have to pay for a print subscription AND a digital subscription, or as the Times describes it in corporate-speak, “All home delivery subscribers can upgrade their account with a digital subscription.”

Upgrade, huh? To pay for basically the same thing twice is an “upgrade.” Right, and “meters” aren’t “paywalls”, either.

Look for this double-charge to be one of the first aspects of the Times‘ digital subscription plan to be modified. 

Even if the Times does modify this policy, the implementation of the metered paywall will only make the Times less influential and less popular, not more. And that’s fine by me. It’s because of paywalls that content like Sunburn — my morning email about what’s hot in Florida politics — work so well. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Times readers in Tallahassee who have gladly read the site, especially its influential Buzz blog about Florida politics, because it’s free. And this has helped make the Times the state’s most influential newspaper. But don’t expect some $37,000 a year government staffer to fork over $10 a month for the, um, privilege to read the Times.

Especially not when the most important news can just be aggregated or re-reported.

Speaking of which, the Times decision to implement a metered paywall can’t be good news for my rival Justin Sayfie and his news aggregation site, The Sayfie Review. Already the pickings have grown slim on his site as many of the links to important political stories he posts are behind paywalls. Increasingly, the Sayfie Review was not a news aggregator, but a news aggregator for the the Times, with its open access. With the Times’ stories behind a paywall, explain to me the value of the Sayfie Review?

Even more hathotic news for me is that the commenting section on the Times‘  website will be less populated by trolls because, well, not many trolls have the money to pay for a digital subscription. 

So wait … the commenting system on TampaBay.com will be cleaned up, the Sayfie Review will be less relevant, and there will be more viewers searching for “free” news on sites like SaintPetersBlog.

Paul Tash, you are a genius. 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.