The Press Herald’s paywall won’t save the daily

Having done his part to torpedo independent Eliot Cutler’s gubernatorial bid four years ago with the Cutler Files website (which, by the way, is still online), maverick public-relations man Dennis Bailey is back with a new online salvo that rips holes in the sails of the state’s largest media organization, MaineToday Media — publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and several other Maine papers.

Bailey’s July 8 post on The Savvy Blog is about the so-called “paywall” that MaineToday erected on July 1, a system that purports to limit readers who aren’t home-delivery subscribers to 10 online stories per month. When readers hit this digital wall, they’ll have to pay a monthly online-subscription fee to view more content.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, as Bailey explains, getting around the paywall is as easy as stepping over a short fence. The 10-story limit applies to one device (laptop, phone, tablet) and one Internet browser (Safari, Firefox, etc.) on that device. So you get 10 stories for every device you use that can connect to the Internet, and 10 more for every additional browser installed on each of those devices.

“In my house,” Bailey writes, “we have a desktop, two laptops, three tablets, and several iPhones. Each one of those devices has more than one Internet browser. … The 10-free limit is more like 100 or more, probably more than enough to get all the news I want every month from my local ‘paper’ for free.”

For news junkies and people (like Bailey and me) whose job essentially requires that they know what’s in the local paper every day, MaineToday’s paywall is not much of an obstacle. And the same can be said for more casual readers. Access to MaineToday’s blogs does not count toward the 10-story limit. Neither does access to the obituaries, photography and video features, or online classified listings for vehicles, real estate and jobs.

That leaves national and local news, sports, opinion and lifestyle features. From that list, you can subtract national news, which is easily accessed (and usually better reported) on scores of other newspapers’ sites. From local news, cut out most major statewide stories (generally available the same day or earlier on this publication’s paywall-free site and on Maine Public Broadcasting’s new news site) and city- and town-specific items of significance (see The Forecaster, also available via the BDN, and all the other smaller papers covering other parts of the state).

The same or similar alternatives are also available, at no charge, for the bulk of MaineToday’s sports coverage and much of its lifestyle reporting. (For example, MaineToday has not distinguished itself as the must-read source for restaurant, music or movie reviews.)

That leaves opinion and stuff like reporter Colin Woodard’s 29-part series on incidents involving Passamaquoddy Indians half a century ago, which MaineToday tossed out late last month as bait to attract online subscribers (news flash: the fish may be nibbling, but most aren’t hooked).

In his blog post, Bailey quotes Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto’s explanation for the paywall, in which she says the paper “simply won’t survive if we continue to give our content away for free online.”

“If that’s the case,” wrote Bailey, a former Press Herald reporter, “then my guess is the Press Herald will not survive.”

Almost no one (competitors and critics included) wants Portland’s daily to bite the dust. Its loss would be a devastating blow to Maine journalism and the communities its reporting serves. (Much of what’s reported by local TV, radio and smaller print competitors originates in MaineToday’s newsrooms.)

Bailey suggests several things MaineToday can do to stay alive, the first of which is to stop printing the Monday-through-Saturday Press Herald and only print the Sunday Telegram. Second: “Don’t give away anything online. Ever.”

Given the fact that print-advertising revenue remains MaineToday’s biggest source of income and, by DeSisto’s own admission, sales of online ads can’t keep the operation in the black, I wouldn’t advocate Bailey’s first suggestion. But his second idea is on the money, as is his third: Offer the headline and maybe one sentence describing the story online, then charge to read the rest.

Gripes aside, the Press Herald’s local news coverage is indispensable, especially during election seasons like the one we’re in now. The most effective way to make readers appreciate this is to take it away (the free version, that is). Erecting a paywall riddled with holes will only aggravate readers and drive them elsewhere. I’d rather shell out 10 bucks a month for unlimited online access than live in a place with no daily paper at all.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.