Last week, the Pueblo Chieftain enacted a pay wall for much of its online content, becoming the largest newspaper in the state to have done so. The 145-year-old southern Colorado staple will charge $5.75 for every four weeks of access — around $75 a year.
The change wasn't due to any recent climactic shift in the company, says managing editor Steve Henson in an interview with the Indy, though there was a need in the last year to lay off some people in the production and delivery areas of the paper. It was, instead, a decision that enough was enough.
"We’ve been discussing it for a long time," says Henson. "And I think philosophically, the whole newspaper industry, on daily papers, is shifting away to, ‘We can’t give our content away for free. This is crazy.’ You know, we’re manufacturing a product at great expense, and we’re giving it for free. ... We’re almost devaluing our product."
It's certainly a timely move. The Newspaper Association of America just released advertising statistics showing almost $800 million in print-advertising losses in the first half of this year, as compared to this time a year ago. And though the $32 million in digital-ad gains is minuscule — World Press Trends says just 2.2 percent of newspapers' ad revenue comes from the Internet — at least it's something. And adding an online subscription system can only help bridge that cavernous money gap. (Simon-Kucher & Partners said the industry should do one better and raise prices as a whole.)
"I think our struggle is: How do you get the people who have always gotten it for free? They never have subscribed to the print edition, and now they have to pay," the editor says. "Well, that was great that they were getting it for free, but really it’s pretty unrealistic, thinking you’re going to get that level of service. You know, you don’t just get City Council meetings covered, or homicides covered — that just doesn’t happen. And so, we’re hoping once people think their way through, they’ll say, ‘Well, this does have value to me.’ And we believe that — that’s part of our move: We think that our product has value."
To that end, the Chieftain has pumped up its website. Here's what Henson wrote in the paper's announcement:
Our online edition offers much more content than our print edition, and features we obviously can't offer in the newspaper. Those include news and feature videos both from the Associated Press and those produced by our local staff. There are slide shows, blogs, online forums.
A number of items will continue to be offered free online. They include: Breaking news. Obituaries. Vital Statistics. Feature photos and photo galleries. Videos. Opinions such as Tell It to The Chieftain and People Speak. Classified and display advertising. User-generated content such as photos and videos. Associated Press headlines. Celebrity news. Our sister publications the Pueblo West View and Beyond the Fold.
We also have enhanced our website — www.chieftain.com — so that it is more user-friendly and comprehensive than ever before.
There are also Apple and Android apps for phone and tablet. But features like the story the paper wrote about the $1 million in student debt that CSU-Pueblo just wrote off will be hidden behind the wall, available to the person who still wants to keep up with the deeply reported stuff.
Currently, the Chieftain has a circulation in the high 30,000s, though it hasn't received the most recent audit, Henson says. "But in a community of probably, you look at our entire area, probably less than 200,000 people, that’s awful good penetration; compared to the Gazette's, you know, in a community that’s probably four or five times our size."
And speaking of population, Henson says a influx into Pueblo would be key to curing a few financial ills.
"The problem for us is that, unlike Colorado Springs — which, you guys have just had unbelievable growth over the last 20 or so years — we haven’t. We’ve stayed more or less the same size," he says. "And so we can’t grow unless our community grows, and that’s kind of where we’re at. We don’t think we’re maxed out — we think we can get some more subscriptions — but a really substantial number, that’s gonna require the community to grow."
As for charges that the paper's only a conservative mouthpiece, reflecting the political beliefs of local owner Bob Rawlings? Well, check the news section.
"I would say that the news coverage is just about as balanced as you could be," Henson says. "To give you an example, we were such fanatics about it, we pulled off, when we covered the Republican convention, we put up all of our front pages on our display board and we said, ‘OK, when the Democratic convention comes, we’re gonna lay out the stories in exactly the same spot, and with the same level of coverage.’ And we really work hard on that."