Saturday, 17 November 2012 14:14

How much would you pay to save the Denver Post?

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I feel like I am stealing every time I spend a half an hour clicking through the Denver Post's site. Digital content cannot remain free forever. I am ready for the paywall. Are you?


I love newspapers: dirty, wasteful, cumbersome printed newspapers. But I'm a bit an odd duck, I guess. Among my peers, I know of only a small handful of people who still use them the way I do. I like to hold them, fold them, smell them, work the crosswords and tear things out of them. I find real peace in a quiet session with a broadsheet splayed out in front of me with a hot cup of coffee in my hand.

I subscribe to the Denver Post now. I was a Rocky Mountain News reader before that. When I was a kid I delivered the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph for almost four years. I tossed thousands of papers, but not before I cut them from their stacks, rolled them, banded them, bagged them and stuffed them into my canvas paperboy bags. I spent my youth with my hands covered in blackish newsprint. I must have gotten into my blood, because my heroes have always been traditional columnists.

Until my early twenties, I was mostly interested in politics. Local and National issues consumed my thoughts and I even fantasized about entering that world myself one day. Though slowly but surely, sports became my primary interest. Politics started to eat me alive inside as my feelings were altogether too intense and I felt too helpless to change things. It wasn't healthy. Sports, on the other hand was an arena where I could accept my inability to shape the conversation. When it came to the games people play, I was more comfortable just sitting back and enjoying the show.

Part of my enjoyment of sports has always been the analysis of others. Sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sports debates are captivating and not as consuming as the political ones. As I became a rabid sports fan in the early 90's, there was no internet then: No blogs. No Deadspin, no Pro Football Talk, no Denver Stiffs. I got my sports dialogue from magazines like Sports Illustrated and from my local paper.

As a young adult living on Capital Hill and working in Federal Heights, I rode the bus every day for nearly two hours. The 15 took me down Colfax and the 83 bounced me up Federal. I spent that time absorbing every column inch of the Rocky, from the front of the paper to the back. The Sports section, though, is where I lingered the longest. I became a huge fan of the scribes there, Tracy Ringolsbly, Dave Krieger, Sam Adams, Bernie Lincecom … the list goes on. I couldn’t tell you what a subscription to the Rocky cost back then because I bought my paper from a box in front of Argonaut Liquors every day for a quarter.

That was nearly twenty years ago. As I've changed, so has the newspaper business. The industry can't rely on readers like me anymore to pick up the slack. Printed newspapers are barely more relevant than phone books. Some people still prefer them, but those people are few and far between. As a result, we have seen paper after paper, including the Rocky Mountain News, go away for good. Those that remain are parts of large National conglomerates that are fighting tooth and nail to remain in business in the digital age.

Newspapers provide a great deal of value in the community in that they still report news. Blogs are great, but it's rare than they have news gatherers on the ground. More typically, they take the content generated by news organizations and comment on it. When the Broncos, Rockies, Nuggets, Avalanche, Buffs, Rams, Falcons and Pioneers play, the Denver Post has staffers in the press box, in the locker room and at field level, seeking out the stories that will be Monday's news and commentary. These people have forged relationships within the teams and taken the time to get to know the coaches and players. They use that access, along with their journalistic skills, to bring fans as close as possible to their teams. It's easy to scoff at the newspapers and deem them irrelevant, but, without them, the rest of the digital media would hardly have a starting point.

Despite the shifting tides within the media universe, sports columnists for the Denver Post like Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla, Terry Frei and Mike Klis, establish the conversation when it comes to Denver sports. Their features become the fodder for sports radio shows and water cooler conversations and establish the tone for subsequent blog articles and TV coverage. The greatest minds in sports media are slowly being lured away from the dailies by digital outfits like Yahoo Sports, USA Today Sports, SI dot com and even Bleacher Report. But the local yokels with their press passes and their long-held traditions remain uniquely able to provide the strongest coverage of local teams.

As the newspaper business comes closer and closer to a financial cliff we are all at risk of losing that. Perhaps we don't all still pick up the dusty old printed version of the newspaper, but it"s in everyone’s best interest that the organizations that once set type by hand to produce them ultimately survive. Without strong local newspapers we would be left to entrust home town coverage to National outlets.

Newspapers will soon be forced to charge for digital content or face extinction. They know this all to well. The question of how to charge, how much to charge and whether or not people will be willing to pay is the top issue facing the industry. Digital content is virtually limitless. With printed material, newspapers have to stick with traditional formulas regarding column inches and layout. These things don't matter on the web. Outlets can also include video, podcasts and interactive material which they never could before. All of this has real value. But how much?

The New York Times introduced what's known as a "paywall" in March of last year. It was the first major American paper to begin charging for subscriptions to its digital version. Subscribers pay anywhere between $15 and $35 per month. Nearly half a million people have signed up, producing heaps of revenue that the Times once relied upon advertisers to generate. Other have followed the Times model.The Los Angeles Times followed suit in March 2012. Gannett, the World's largest publisher, owns eighty papers in eighty markets. Of those, Gannett has added paywalls in about fifty. The company expects to generate $100 million in revenue from subscribers in 2012, replacing dwindling advertising dollars and securing its future. There is a huge downside to charging for content, too. Fewer people visit a paper's web site when it’s not free. The Tallahassee Democrat, a Gannett paper, saw its page views drop by nearly 40% when it introduced its paywall in March.

In an interview with Westword's Michael Roberts, Denver Post CEO Ed Moss recently said that a paywall was not in the paper’s immediate plans. "The company is doing testing in some of our smaller markets, but at this point, we have no plans for a paywall at the Post ," he told Roberts. "We're evaluating it all the time, but we have no plans to do it anytime soon.” Moss stresses that the Post is still bullish on the ad-revenue model. But that hasn’t worked elsewhere. "I know there are many newspapers that have moved to a paywall,” He adds, “and we'll look at the successes they have.” Chances are Moss is kidding himself. The Post, which is part of MediaNews Group, the second largest newspaper company in the country, will probably make a change sooner or later. We’re going to have to pay. The only question is … how much?

I've thought a lot about this. I visit the Denver Post web site every day. When I am looking for a subject to expand on in a post for this site I often look to Paige and Kiszla in particular for inspiration. I enjoy the reporting, but the columnists are what I would have the hardest time living without if the paper were ever to go under. Frankly, after having already lost the Rocky Mountain News, I would sooner deal with a paywall than see the Post fly south. I currently pay about $30 per year for an ESPN “Insider” subscription I use far less than I do the Post's site. And, with progressive young staffers like Benjamin Hochman and Troy Renck adding enjoyable digital-only to the site’s sports "section", it only becomes more and more worth paying for.

The number I have settled on is $5 month. That's what I would consider a fair price for access to the digital Post. That's $60 per year. If 100,000 subscribers were willing to pay that, the Denver Post could generate $6 million in digital subscriber revenue. If half a million people stepped up, the paper would once again be very healthy. Coloradans could rest easily, knowing that our community would continue to benefit from local reporting and opinions. But is it realistic in a market the size of Denver for a paper to expect those type or results? For the Denver Post to roll the dice on a pay-for-content model and have it fail could be a devastating blow – even force it out of business. So it's a decision management won't enter into hastily.

Now that I am all grown up, I have a full time job, two kids and a mortgage payment. I still get the Denver Post tossed onto my porch every morning but I don’t always have time to unwrap it. In fact, about a third of my papers never even get opened up before being tossed in the recycling bin. Since I work largely in front of a computer I get a lot of my favorite Denver Post content from the web. I feel like I am stealing every time I spend a half an hour clicking through the Post’s site. I am ready for the paywall. Are you?

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