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DEAR READER: Missourian site is ending its time paywall and moving to surveys for revenue

Sunday, June 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dear Reader,

Is this column worth a nickel to you? What if someone else paid the nickel for you?

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That’s an option you’ll see in the next few days at ColumbiaMissourian.com.

The Missourian is converting its digital meter system away from the 24-hour model. That is, the 24-hour time limit for free published news at ColumbiaMissourian.com is going away.

That’s not to say the news will be free.

If you don’t want to pay $5.95 monthly to be a Missourian member, there will be another way to access articles from whenever they were published. It’s through a program by Google that presents a short one- or two-question survey before you can see the article. (If you’re a member, you don’t see any surveys. Membership has its privileges.)

Here’s the ecosystem: Google receives 10 cents from market research firms for every completed survey. Google pays the newspaper a nickel for each survey response. The research companies get data for a better idea of what we like as consumers.

When I mentioned the survey idea to a few friends, the first or second question always centered on privacy. Google says it does not access any personal information — answering a survey about tires won’t suddenly produce a bunch of spam email for Michelin in your email inbox.

The Missourian advertising team that proposed the survey model said it didn’t find anything out there countering Google’s claim. The company says the survey program, which was introduced in 2012, runs in more than 300 newspapers.

Why move away from the 24-hour meter?

It didn’t work.

After 18 months, memberships hit a plateau, and the revenue didn’t offset the deficits, namely reduced traffic to the website and costs affiliated with managing the system.

I also heard complaints from readers about the difficulty of sharing stories. You read something, got excited and wanted to share it with your friends on Facebook or email. But those friends couldn’t access the article because the 24-hour period had expired. The system ran up against the way news flows organically across networks of people and institutions.

Other problems: Journalism students said it was difficult to share their work with prospective employers, and some felt it was unfair to pay for the work that they produced.

The Missourian system will look similar to the Albuquerque Journal’s. So let’s take a look:

From its home page, I selected an article, “Holm’s negotiations with UFC going better.” The article page popped up with the headline, but the article was grayed out. Below the headline, I was asked to either answer the survey or log in as a subscriber.

On another article, I was asked: “Have you tried a new makeup product or brand in the last six months?” My answer, you may be surprised to learn, was no. There was no second question.

There are a lot of options newspapers can use with the surveys. Albuquerque uses long surveys, up to 10 questions, with the incentive of seven days survey-free after completion.

The Missourian will start simple, with short surveys. The surveys I’ve completed on the Albuquerque site for the most part took less than 15 seconds.

It remains to be seen where the irritation threshold lies. Active Missourian readers may find the monthly membership fee a bargain compared to answering surveys for 10 or 20 stories daily.

And, as I wrote when the 24-hour model was launched, I believe membership is a statement that says you have a stake in the continuing success of the Columbia Missourian and its dual missions of serving mid-Missouri and training the next generation of journalists.

No one sees surveys as the panacea for newspaper business models. At least I haven’t found anyone brave or foolish enough to stake that ground. Most see it as a nice interim step — to the still undefined next great thing.

As always, your feedback is welcome. There is room to tweak some of the particulars. There is a commitment, though, of giving the new system a good shot at success.

Tom


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Comments

Richard Saunders June 2, 2014 | 2:39 p.m.

FWIW, I found out about this change from an irritated friend.
I'm having a hard time understanding why these failures with the paywall weren't blatantly obvious to you even before they were implemented (as they were to me).

As for the new setup with Google, well, you're not the first person to make a deal with the Devil, either. They are absolutely the last company on the planet I would trust in regards to information collection. Given they save every piece of information they obtain FOREVER, their assurances have no merit. Why, for instance do they keep all of our GMail messages, even after the user "deletes" them? What kind of a business invests money providing a service that operates directly against the customer's wishes?

My opinion on the new model is that it will also fail to deliver adequate revenue while continuing to drive away eyeballs. You'll likely experience an initial bump in revenue only to watch it plateau as people get tired of being interrupted when clicking on every story. You might consider having a survey load only once every day (or after X hours).

Myself, I'll be interested to see if the Missourian can even create any content that I want to see bad enough to prostrate my digital persona to TEH GOOGLEZ.

As always, time will tell.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 4, 2014 | 6:18 a.m.

@ Richard Saunders:

Yes, obviously time will tell.

What I've taken from this is there may be a serious revenue problem, which wasn't taken care of by the previous attempt to gain additional revenue. The prior attempt apparently will continue in parallel (excusing those of us who now pay monthly to comment on articles from being quizzed in order to read articles).

It would be interesting if we were told HOW MUCH income the Google deal is expected to generate, assuming the practice doesn't do actual damage to the revenue stream.

For the short term I'd rather pay the monthly fee than take the quiz, but remember I'm one of those rich b*****ds who should be paying more taxes. Excuse me while I light my illegal Cuban cigar using a $20 bill.

(Report Comment)

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