In short, there was news. Big, breaking news.
So I asked new Asheville Citizen-Times Editor Josh Awtry if the newspaper would drop its online paywall for easy access to all the storm coverage. His answer was swift: “You bet.” The newspaper has made stories about storm coverage free to readers, though it is unclear to me for how long.
The hypocrisy of the decision is telling. By its actions, the newspaper leadership is saying is that if its news and coverage is important, it should be free. But when it’s not, you should pay. Come again? Shouldn’t the policy be that if the newspaper’s online content is good enough, essential enough, to charge for it, then the newspaper should always charge for it? If I were a paying online customer, I’d be ticked.
There is an argument to be made for dropping online paywalls in times of severe emergency. When there are truly lives on the line, I believe newspapers should certainly make their content free and available to all. But in the case of a snow storm, shouldn’t newspapers that charge continue to charge?
Beyond the hypocrisy, there’s a greater problem the the paywall approach of the Asheville Citizen-Times and its parent company, Gannett. This Columbia Journalism Review piece from earlier in February explores it. A tidbit:
The medium- to long-term point of a paywall strategy is to create a new, growing digital revenue stream while protecting your existing digital-ad business and slowing the decline of print revenue as much as possible. The end game is, hopefully, an all-digital business that can support a strong newsgathering operation without print subsidies.
But a paywall imposes the quality imperative more than ever. You have to have a strong newsgathering operation to justify charging online in the first place.
Gannett, though, has a well-earned and long-established reputation for high margins and poor quality. Last year it generated 22 percent operating cashflow margins, paid out $183 million in dividends, and laid off hundreds of journalists.
Asheville Citizen-Times, tear down your paywall. Or improve your content. And stop with the nonsensical standard.