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Last month, the New Orleans Times-Picayune decided to reduce its print publication to three days a week sometime this fall, rendering New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily paper, according to Poynter. Of course, this is only the latest in a string of such reductions (not to mention the removal, by some publications, of print versions altogether). As Poynter notes, Advance Publications, The Times Picayune’s current owner, has already reduced print frequency of The Ann Arbor News and other papers.
Which makes one new trend a bit worrisome: online ad sales, according to Reuters, have hit a plateau. Some executives, like Scott Heekin-Canedy of the New York Times Co. (which lost 2.3 percent of ad revenue, compared to last year) and Steve Hills of Washington Post Media (which lost 7 percent), attribute this to general economic trends rather than a failure of digital advertising more broadly. Hill, for example, called this a “temporary slowdown,” as quoted in Reuters. Still, it’s worth thinking about other options.
The most obvious alternative: paywalls. The jury is still out on how this will look long-term—how much will readers pony up for online access, and under what circumstances?—but the more publications erect paywalls, the less blasphemous and more normative the concept is likely to seem. And more publications are, indeed, erecting paywalls, according to Ken Doctor at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though some experience an initial drop in traffic due to the shock of the change, it’s often followed by growth. Doctor notes that there are better and worse ways to charge for digital access: The New York Times’ model of giving a number of articles per month for free, then charging when readers surpass that quota, is a good one. Experimenting with combinations of print and digital access is another important component. By the end of this year, Doctor estimates, about 20 percent of the dailies in this country will charge for online access. “That seems small when you look at the major newspaper chains; it’s getting harder to find one that isn’t at least experimenting with some kind of paid access,” notes Poynter's Steve Myers.
In response to The Times-Picayune’s print reduction plan, The Lens, another New Orleans publication, produced a nostalgic photo essay of people reading the print paper on days it will no longer be available. It’s worth noting that The Lens itself is online-only (save for pieces picked up by The Louisiana Weekly). The Lens uses, in fact, another alternative financial model: it operates as a “non-profit, nonpartisan public-interest newsroom" under the umbrella of The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., and all funding comes from private donations. Other journalism organizations follow this model successfully: ProPublica is probably the most well known, but institutions including the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Brandeis’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, MinnPost, and the St.Louis Beacon all operate as non-profit enterprises. If digital ad revenue continues to stall, these journalism outfits offer hope: there are other avenues for online news.
NewsCred contributor Jessica Gross is a writer based in Brooklyn.