Putting the prize chicken into the paywall basket – is the Northern Echo’s move going to pave the way or fall foul?

Northern Echo 1

The paywall pop-up which is activated on the Northern Echo website after clicking on ten different stories in a month.

Sarcastic and doom-mongering comments abound over the news that Newsquest title The Northern Echo has launched a tiered paywall system – making it the only regional news title in England to charge consumers for its online product.

Splutters Mr Angry 2, among others, on Hold The Front Page: “If digital were going to work it would have by now. It simply doesn’t make any money. It may save print and distribution costs but advertisers hate it so what’s the point?”

While theMarkmag mused on the Guardian’s frothy coverage of the change: “Seems like one of those pointless browser dependent paywalls. I would imaging I’ll end up using the county wide news on BBC as a first view, then occasionally visit the Gannett site using multiple browsers on multiple platforms. Ultimately the hassle will just mean I’ll use it less, and never worry about hitting the limits anyway.”

None of this type of response will come as much of a shock to Newsquest or its US mother company Gannett. After all, it may be the only paywall in England, but it is the second introduced by the company in the UK, with the first being the Glasgow-based Herald website.

And it’s not the first attempt at introducing a paywall for an English regional title online either. Wolverhampton’s Press & Star enjoyed a brief dalliance with a paywall experiment in 2011 and in 2010 Johnston Press engineered a badly thought out paywall test which lasted only three months.

What’s different about this particular foray into the world of paid-for news is, firstly, it’s the company’s most successful northern title that’s been chosen to host the paywall and secondly, this move doesn’t give the impression of a temporary suck-it-and-see test.

In the last half of 2014 the Northern Echo ‘enjoyed’ an ABC rating of -9.6% – fairly dismal one might conclude – until that is you see the results of the other Newsquest titles in the north, with the Bradford Telegraph & Argus rating at -12.8% and The Press in York bagging a drop of -11.7. Then compare the -9.6% with the other daily titles in the north of England – with the mean ABC rating coming in at -11.4% – it turns out the Echo isn’t doing as badly as its competition in terms of flagging newspaper sales. The Echo also purports its website to be growing by more than 28% every year, with a ‘mature’ online audience of 313,919 unique users a month – meaning adults aged over 40 who in theory have more money to spend and more loyalty to the brand.

Rather than making an apologetic attempt at keeping up with the times by introducing a paywall on a badly-run website, as Johnston Press did in 2010, Newsquest has picked one of its flagship titles to run a crusade of getting people to pay for a successful product rather than expecting it free of charge. The pop-up that appears on the site when you go over your ten clicks is not stumbling over itself to cajole readers into coughing up – it is simply pointing out that readers should pay for decent journalism. Its message, complete with a no-nonsense picture of Echo editor Peter Barron, is firm but fair. It makes no suggestion of a trial period, it makes no excuses, it suggests to the reader that the paywall is here to stay, so pay up or get lost.

Northern Echo 2

The paywall stops readers from seeing more than the first few paragraphs of a story

This is all very well in an ideal world, but as pointed out by many of the Hold the Front Page commentators, people won’t pay for something that they can get free elsewhere. And this is where the challenge lies. The mantra of paying for a service you are accessing is one that most logical adults wouldn’t argue with, but only if you are getting value for money, otherwise why pay at all?

What the Northern Echo needs to do is provide is something unique, something nobody else offers and something that’s enough of a draw to want to return again and again. It needs to put its money where its mouth is, by investing in the website and ensuring that the content is as captivating, newsy, entertaining and up-to-the-minute as possible. But with round after round of redundancy across regional newspaper companies it is hard to see how the staff that are left will be available to dedicate the time and investment needed into creating a truly fantastic website. Newsquest needs to do a Trinity Mirror and pledge itself and its money into becoming a 24-7 go-to site filled with content from paid-for bloggers, online and digital journalists and, dare I say it, curating decent input and engagement from engaged and informed readers.

Currently the Northern Echo site looks a little flat for its cost. Its home page offers a range of stories to choose from, including the predictable weather summary, police and crime stories and charity coverage. There is little obvious in the way of interactive media, video or analysis or investigative journalism. Perhaps it is the sports pages in this instance that will draw and retain an audience. And hopefully a percentage of those who used the site regularly last month will now cough up for the privilege of continuing to have access.

Northern Echo 3

A snapshot of the Northern Echo’s homepage

The industry is choc-full of naysayers predicting doom and disaster. While people like Mr Angry 2 are wrong about digital not being the present and future of regional news, Newsquest has taken a bold step in putting its prize chicken into the paywall basket.

It’s going to take pants of steel and a grip of iron to prove those cynics wrong. I, for one, wish them luck trying. If this works, it could pave the way for others to follow. And while people might not agree that it will work, it’s likely that we do all agree that good journalism should be reimbursed.

And if it fails it might be the hammering of the nail in the coffin for paywalls in the sector forever; which at least will do the industry a favour in helping divine the path of the murky and unpredictable beast that is the digital future of news.

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