About 10 years ago, the Village Voice raised some eyebrows when it stopped charging for its publication in Manhattan while continuing to charge $1 in Brooklyn and other places. One person that found the move odd was none other than Arthur Sulzberger Jr. the publisher of the New York Times.
He and I had a brief discussion about it at a National Association of Black Journalists convention in Washington, D.C. I agree with him that the dual pricing structure was strange.
At the time, the Village Voice, then the doyenne of alternative newspapers, was probably feeling the pressure from the proliferation of free weeklies that was eroding its advertising budget.
In the days before blogs and other internet publications had really taken off, the conventional industry wisdom was that the more readers a publication could claim, the more it could charge for advertising, which remains the primary source of revenue for all media, new and old.
Interestingly enough, Sulzberger – and almost every daily newspaper in America – would follow the Voice’s lead over the next decade, giving their online content away for free while charging for the newsprint.
It is akin to giving the newspaper away in Manhattan while charging in other markets. The smart money said that the web could reach an almost unlimited readership, and newspapers would be foolhardy to pass up the opportunity to rake in millions by refusing to provide their online content for free.
The windfall has yet to come. Now, there is a movement afoot to put the genie back in the bottle and begin charging for online news. I never believed that free content was the way to go. If you look closely at free newspapers, the journalism was second- rate at best. A shopper, as it is called, was simply a series of ads, surrounded by copy, mostly press releases. The free weeklies in New York made out ok for awhile by charging advertisers low prices but eventually, the shoddy journalism lost readers, and subsequently, advertisers.
You can make a very strong argument that the quality of the Village Voice – once a staple of strong investigative reporting – waned when it went free. The business of journalism is a very expensive one. You have to pay reporters fairly high salaries for sound, appealing journalism. If you were to do a cost analysis, you would find that some stories can cost a publication thousands of dollars, yet their impact on the bottom line is dubious.
So if a publication decides to forgo a revenue stream, it better be sure that it can make it up. The newspaper industry, along with other media, is being devastated by the downturn in the economy. Advertising revenue is at its lowest in decades and there is no end in sight. At the same time, the same smart people who said to give content away insist that newspapers should continue to do so, because people won’t pay for content.
At the Haitian Times, we’ve never committed to the freebie format. For one thing, we know that our advertising base was limited. We had the website even before we printed the newspaper, using our online edition as a marketing tool to increase subscriptions. Last year, we experimented briefly with a free format, but in a few weeks, we will install a pay wall in our site.
Eventually, of course, we would like to expand our readership, but initially, our aim is merely to encourage the print edition’s 3,000 subscribers to make the switch to the online edition.
We believe our readers will be more than willing to purchase the unique content and high quality of the Haitian Times for only $1 per week. There are few places, if any, to find news about Haiti and various Haitian communities in the United States. When we launched the newspaper in 1999, we sought to bridge the gap between Haitians who have fanned out across the world. But we never had the resources we needed to accomplish our goal with a print edition.
Now we have the chance to get it right with the cost-effective Internet. Our strategy now is to provide inexpensive advertising, especially for the many mom-and-pop enterprises in the community who found it prohibitively expensive to buy ad space in the print edition, when converting the gourde to the dollar.
A small ethnic newspaper like the Haitian Times is better positioned to make it in the world of hyper local news. Our market is narrowly defined and we’ve positioned ourselves to be the most informative sources on Haiti for Haitians living outside of Haiti.
We have put tremendous resources in revamping the website to be Web 2.0 ready and soon we will have video reporting, audio and more photo essays that tell stories beyond words. Haitian Americans are collectively, sophisticated consumers, of news, goods and services. We believe that this move will help the Haitian Times remain the principal conduit for dialogue in the international Haitian community.