Bloomsburg Press Enterprise's post-floods paywall a folly or financially sound?

Journalists are reacting strongly to the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise's stance that anyone who wants its news should have to pay for it. Readers had asked the paper to drop its website paywall for an extended time following a devastating flood, and some even started their own free, community-driven news site as an alternative.

Journal Register Co. editor Matt DeRienzo argued:

"Paywalls are a sad attempt by an industry that can't come to terms with the changes that are destroying the print franchise, and ironic because they try to inflict a notion of scarcity and control on the very medium that has killed those concepts. ... You couldn't ask for a better example of the folly of paywalls than the Bloomsburg case you write about here, right down to citizens starting their own local news site in response. Because they can. Anyone can. And guess what? It turns out they're producing some pretty compelling stuff."

Mike Sisak, a staff writer at The Citizens' Voice newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., (another town hard hit by flooding) offered his paper's approach as a contrast:

"We pushed breaking news and full updates to our website, which does not have a paywall, throughout the Tropical Storm Lee flood. We carried instant updates on Twitter and Facebook, often beating competitors in speed and accuracy. Reporters contributed dispatches to our sister radio stations and hourly updates on the local PBS television affiliate to ensure dissemination to residents who did not have access to our website.

This multimedia approach allowed the Voice to quickly publish information and dispel rumors -- some of which were spread by our ill-informed colleagues in the broadcast media.

Even our print editions, produced from a makeshift newsroom and printed at a sister newspaper, were distributed free of charge to evacuation centers.

In crisis, the public service a news organization provides trumps all profit motives and paywall blockades."

Several people from the Press Enterprise responded. Publisher Brandon Eyerly (who was interviewed for the original post) added a lengthy explanation of his paywall strategy. He argues that it "gets the public accustomed to paying for online content because there is simply no other viable long term online newspaper business model," and it "It avoids cannibalizing the print product."

"The majority of the replies from our readers and local subscribers (i.e. our customers that pay our salaries and support our advertisers) were supportive of the pay wall. These are people that recognize the value of our product and understand it costs money to pay reporters, editors and photographers. And to put this in perspective, despite the paywall, 95% of our paid customers are print customers.  So this whole debate centers around a small percentage of the online traffic that didn't want to shell out $2.50 for a week."

Reporter Peter Kendron also noted that the paper posted the most important flood-related information on its Facebook page, and reporter Susan Schwartz said the print paper was delivered to the county's emergency shelter for flood victims.

Correction: This post originally misspelled the name of Press Enterprise reporter Peter Kendron.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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