Snow storm highlights hypocrisy of Asheville Citizen-Times website paywall

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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citizen_times_website_snow_2014Over the past couple of days, a record-setting snow fell across Asheville and Western North Carolina. There were power outages, car wrecks, schools closing and shelters opening.

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.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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  1. Katherine February 17, 2014

    I agree with the others Jason. I think you definitely set up Mr. Awtry now, whether there was intent there or not, who knows. I can’t speak to your intent. What I can speak of is my perception and my perception is that you intentionally set him up in order to grind your “Gannett Ax”. Maybe you should just let it go. I know it sucks and there’s probably some pretty hurt feelings involved and that’s OK – you’re entitled to those feelings but, if you’re going to move forward you have to let that go.

    I appreciate what you have to say here on Ashevegas – that’s why I keep coming back. Even ‘ol Stu’s starting to grow on me- LOL but you have to at least agree to make a promise to your readers that you’ll play “fair”. If you lose your sense of fair play then you become no better than a Perez Hilton blog.

  2. Richard Parker February 16, 2014

    I look forward to your analysis to determine whether there is indeed more local ‘watch-dog’ or ‘investigative’ journalism in coming weeks, be it print or online. Those corporate pronouncements may be nothing short of fraud and a USA Today numbers game, but I hope I am wrong.

  3. Matt February 15, 2014

    Not sure I follow the logic here warranting the use of the word ‘hypocrisy’. And, i appreciate the editors opneness to Jason’s suggestion, and Jasons suggestion. Let he public have access in times of need.

    But I do know one thing for sure, the ACT website is one messy mess. Cluttered, slow, malware ridden. I rarely visit, myself. And just stick to the paper edition if I want their scoop.

  4. White Lightnin' February 14, 2014


  5. Nate February 14, 2014

    Honestly, Jason, I’m starting to feel like any article that you write on the ACT should include a brief disclaimer, “This reporter was fired by the ACT and continues to hold a grudge against the organization and its corporate parent.”

    The idea that a newspaper would make articles related to public safety accessible while requiring payment for most others is pretty much the opposite of hypocrisy. It’s not just items that are “newsworthy” that they’re making more open, it’s items related to safety, school closings and the like. They may be making bad decision after bad decision over there, but this is exceedingly weak grounds to attck them on.

    1. Jason Sandford February 14, 2014

      Nate, you’re completely missing the point.

    2. Jason Sandford February 14, 2014

      Also, Nate – I was not fired. I was laid off. Big difference.

      1. luther blissett February 16, 2014

        Those grapes of yours are still less than sweet, Jason.

        Right now, the two alternative ways to make money in general online news are paywalls or “…The Reason Why Will Shock You!” clickbait headlines. It’s possible to carve out a narrow one-person niche with a blog, but I don’t think the future of local news is having you doing personal reconnaissance in a snowstorm.

    3. theOtherBarry February 14, 2014

      I’m not a fan of Gannett or their paywall policies, but… I have to agree that at the very least, this new editor at the AC-T might have reason to feel burned, Jason. You sort of lured him in with a ‘do the right thing for the community in a moment of crisis’, and then when he did what you asked, you yell “j’accuse!! hypocrisy!!”.

      Welcome to Asheville, Mr. Awtry.

      1. Harry Sax February 21, 2014

        USA Today sucks

  6. Grumpy-reader February 14, 2014

    Timely discussion. Thanks, Jason, for offering the opportunity. I agree that papers with paywalls should drop restrictions in times of need. But the Gannett paywall makes no sense. After the NY-Times and Wa-Po went paywall they ramped up their interactive content — offering incredible stories deftly blended with graphics and user-friendly interactive features. Now Gannett puts up a paywall, fires local journalists, and craps out a generic website (ubiquitous to every Gannett paper nation-wide), albeit with a video menu offering glurge videos that are already dated and hardly worthy of a mention on Redditt or Gawker. Yet Gannett continues to make money.

    1. smytty February 15, 2014

      When the paywall initially went up, I found ways to creep around it. Then, I basically got bored with the C-T.

      When I heard (here) that the paywall was down for the storm, I popped over and kicked the tires. Truly, the content has gotten progressively worse.

      To me, the discussion shouldn’t be whether or not to pull down a purely cosmetic paywall in times of community distress, but rather “what role does a newspaper serve in today’s age?”

      As I mentioned below, the paywall’s 48 hour respite felt less like a community service and more like a free HBO weekend for an entity struggling for relevance and an audience.

  7. BL February 14, 2014

    I feel like you kinda ambushed Awtry and the A-CT on this one. On the 11th you tweeted at Josh Awtry a question regarding whether or not the paper will take down the paywall to allow easier access to storm info. When I read his response at the time my feeling was that the editor had not considered this, thought it a good idea, and implemented it. Later you took the opportunity to spring the trap.

    I read the free stuff on the A-CT and love the content on this site and a few others like it. I recognize the need for ‘real’ newspapers with their values and protocols. I’m always wrestling with the idea of paying for content. Usually more important things win out.

    I enjoy Ashvegas but this one felt a little disingenuous.

  8. smiley February 14, 2014

    Sorry Jason, don’t agree. I love the “tear down this paywall!” line but it doesn’t correlate to offering some free news of a special nature, pun intended. True, if the content is worth the money to scale the wall you will pay it. Economics 101 leaves the price point to Gannett News but more importantly to us the consumer. Together we make the decision. It’s either a win win or somethings gotta give. There are three components: the newspaper, the reader/consumer and the advertiser. Uniquely, a blend of revenue is necessary. If the paper gives away content supported only by advertisers then the paper needs to satisfy them with readership not the readers. Does the “news” then become tweaked to attract more readers at the cost of a better quality of news? The conundrum is that a better quality newspaper comes from readers being satisfied not advertisers. Readers are the ones who decide what they are satisfied with. The A C-T is a for-profit model and they already offer a number of free articles each month. If you like the free content and feel the cost is worth unlimited content, pay for it.
    Ashvegas does better with the AC-T model the way it is and your providing links to Ray’s Weather during the storm. Thanks.
    Economics, rules! It is the most important and influential of the social sciences. We make no decision without contemplating a cost benefit and “cost” is often not of a monetary nature but it is still part of the science of economics.
    I used to buy the AC-T in the paper-only era but choose not to buy it online today. I have many more options and do not feel it is worth the price. I do use my free articles up every month and am satisfied with this arrangement.
    If I had to pay for Ashvegas? Hummm……..

  9. Sean February 14, 2014

    I actually tried to pay them to get beyond the paywall. Not only did they want money, but they wanted a bunch of personal information. I called to see if I could give them just money, they refused. So they didn’t get my money.

    I’m all for supporting local journalism and journalism financially. Speaking of which, Jason, is there a way to donate here?

  10. JML February 13, 2014

    Why would anyone check a newspapers website for weather?

    1. smytty February 14, 2014

      They are clearly struggling for relevance

    2. luther blissett February 16, 2014

      Weather? I think you mean “weather and accident reports and first-person updates on road conditions and a one-stop shop for school and business closings.” Or perhaps you weren’t thinking about those?

  11. Media Watcher February 13, 2014

    Why should the Citizen-Times give any of its content away for free, even emergency information? It’s a for-profit company that has to pay its employees and its shareholders. Emergency information is available on (free) television and radio. WCQS is a “free” non-profit news service with emergency information. The City and County run free websites with emergency information as well. Not sure about the “hypocrisy” here.
    On the other hand, must agree that the new, expanded Citizen-Times is not much more than the old, shrinking Citizen-Times, with extra USA Today pages. Local reporting has not gotten better .. . yet. The story on the wooly adelgid was old news. Story on people signing up for Obamacare was . . .interprising. Nice piece by John Boyle on the snow plowing. But is there anything more hard-hitting or in-depth . . yet?

    1. Frosty February 14, 2014

      The C-T should offer their content for free to get more people reading it. There are thousands of examples of this online, and in print. Newspapers are funded by advertisers who want the most eyeballs. I am an example of missed revenue for them. I will not pay for their website, but they could use me to help gain advertisers if it were free.

      I would love to know the numbers of paying digital subscribers vs previous free visitors. I have to believe it’s a small fraction of potential customers. Since the announcement of the pay wall I’ve been waiting for them to end that silly experiment. Part of me hopes the new editor is smart enough to know this, but I’m guessing his hands are tied at the corporate level.

      1. LEW February 14, 2014

        Your wrong. The C-T is financed by BOTH advertising and paying readers. Why would readers pay if it’s all free online. AND most of the advertising $ come from the hard copy, not online, so advertisers actually do better when customers pick up the paper and don’t see content online.

      2. indie February 18, 2014

        The landscape is littered with tens of thousands of online companies that thought they could sustain themselves on eyeballs. I thought must people had given up that somewhat naive view by the year 2000.

  12. robyn February 13, 2014

    Thanks for calling it as you see it Jason.
    As a way to get out of not delivering the paper today they give you a free digital?
    USA Today- is USA yesterday- anything in there I read yesterday on line!
    Just more paper to line your bird cage!

    1. Murphy February 13, 2014

      oh, don’t worry you’ll get two day old newspapers when delivery resumes…

  13. jordan February 13, 2014

    Incognito tabs are a simple soluton…

    1. Jason W. February 14, 2014

      Or you can clear your cookies.

  14. Doug Cegelis February 13, 2014

    What’s great about the ACT paywall, in my experience, is that if you clear your cookies and cache after you reach your article limit, it starts all over! I used to be a home subscriber to the paper, but when they instituted the paywall online I decided I’d never again pay for the physical delivery of their paper.

  15. Murphy February 13, 2014


    have you also noticed the decrease in online content during the past few days…

    kinda’ odd – 21st C and all.

    1. Jason Sandford February 13, 2014

      Yes Murphy. Was going to note that in a review of the revamped paper at the end of the week. There’s nothing there!


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