The News & Observer is offering test drives of the beta version of its new Web site. My quick critique: It’s clean, easy to navigate and considerably less fussy/busy than the existing site. My immediate question: Will the new site live behind a pay wall?
Newspapers have long had trouble getting comfortable with their Web sites. In the beginning, newspapers treated their online editions as annoyances at best, and as tip sheets for competitors at worst. When the industry finally gave in to the inevitability of the Internet, its reaction was to make readers jump through cumbersome registration and log-in hoops for access. Eventually sensing the error of that approach (which helped cause the N&O to lose its online lead to WRAL.com, for instance), newspapers overcompensated in the other direction, making it all too easy for readers to cancel their print subscriptions and get their news exclusively online.
Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way. My former boss, Steve Brill, earlier this year founded a company that seeks to help newspapers collect revenue from online readers, and numerous companies reportedly have signed on — no surprise, considering that newspaper revenues are fading faster than the public’s respect for Congress. Brill’s company hasn’t identified its clients, but I have to believe McClatchy — the N&O’s owner, and one of the more heavily indebted (and thus financially precarious) journalism companies — is either among them or is considering its own pay plan.
I asked N&O editor John Drescher, via email, whether readers will be asked to pay for access to the new Web site. Drescher is normally reliable in his responses (even if only to say he’s got little to say), but this time he didn’t reply. That silence may be telling.
Update: After this was posted, Drescher sent me the following note:
We’re exploring several scenarios but no decision has been made.
What matters in that sentence is everything before the “but.” Even accounting for the recent (but slight) improvement in McClatchy’s fortunes, the company has little to lose by putting its Web sites behind a pay wall. Look for it to happen.