At long last, the much-ballyhooed Journalism Online paid-online-subscription engine is launching its first test. And like almost everything involving Journalism Online, it's a head-scratcher.
Beginning immediately, LancasterOnline—the Web version of Pennsylvania's Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era (maybe they should invest in bit.ly for newspaper names)—will begin limiting access to out-of-market visitors who want to read the paper's obituaries. According to Poynter's Bill Mitchell, the pay wall will kick in if a visitor reads more than seven obits in a month. At that point, a frequent obit reader will be asked to pay $1.99 a month (or $19.99 a year) to read more about the dead.
Are they serious? Are there really that many people people visiting the Lancaster site to read obits? Really?
The folks in Lancaster claim to have done the math that proves there's a substantial out of town audience for obits, though it's based on a lot of guesswork (and probably proves, once again, that journalists really aren't that good at math). Notably, Lancaster seems to base its projections on traffic numbers from the not-so-reliable Google Analytics rather than on data from the site's internal logs, which would be much more precise. That seems odd.
According to Mitchell's story, LancasterOnline estimates that 100,000 out-of-market visitors to the site read obits each year. And the site reckons that more than 10 percent of them do it—yes, read obits—several times a week. Okaaaay. Taking the math further, Lancaster estimates that nearly 90,000 visitors to the site read the obits at least once a week, and 17,692 visitors read the obits four times a week.
These numbers are preposterous. Remember, this is little LancasterOnline, not NewYorkTimes.com or WashingtonPost.com. I find it hard to believe that Lancaster has that sort of constant, repeat traffic to its obits—or else it's got an audience with a truly obsessive fascination with grazing news about local deaths. (The paper claims that 5 percent of its site's 47.4 million page views last year went to obits. Seems high.)
There's more funky math: Extrapolating from those numbers, and using Journalism Online's subscription system, with its $1.99/month or $19.99/year model, Lancaster thinks it can milk this alleged frequent-obit audience to the tune of $100,000 to $500,000 a year. Worst case: $10,000 to $50,000 the first year. I would suggest that they recalculate that worst case. As Mitchell points out, "to hit $100,000 in annual revenue, LancasterOnline will need to persuade just over 5,000 of its out-of-area obit readers to cough up $19.99 a year."
That ain't gonna happen, folks. Not a chance. Every assumption it's based on—from projected audience to the percentage of readers that might be willing to pay—is flawed. Again, the theory is that Lancaster will be able to charge a fee to non-local readers who look at more than seven obituaries a month. That strikes me as a very, very unusual (and tiny) use case.
In any event, is this the best test case that Journalism Online can find to prove its theory that people will pay for something they previously got for free? Remember, there's no added value here—just a penalty for being a frequent reader of the obits. Journalism Online claims to have hundreds of papers signed up to test paid models, and is promising more tests soon. But it's been tight-lipped about names, and this seemingly flawed first example doesn't inspire confidence in the venture's alleged partnerships.
Those of us who are skeptical that newspapers can charge online subscription fees for most content base our objections on a couple of theories: That there will continue to be free alternatives for a lot of the content put behind paywalls, and that content needs to be truly unique—and value-added—to justify asking readers to pay. As TBD.com's Jim Brady has so wisely said, just wanting to charge for something doesn't really constitute a business model. The Lancaster obits may pass the first test, but they fail the second test.
We need some solid, real-world tests of paid subscription models to determine, once and for all, who's right in this religious war between advocates of paid vs. free online news products. Journalism Online is providing a mechanism to run those tests. But it sure could have picked a better place than the obituary page of LancasterOnline to do it. By focusing on very limited content underpinned by highly suspect numbers, this test, I'm afraid, is destined for an early grave.