On Friday, the Sun Sentinel announced that, effective April 9th, it will be launching "digital memberships" and moving all its content behind a paywall. Sun Sentinel Publisher and CEO Howard Greenberg doesn't give any reasons behind the change that will occur in just 10 days and that will also include the Tribune Company's other newspapers like the LA Times, Baltimore Sun, and the Star Tribune.
Some Blogging Guy gives us his usual broad brush treatment of the subject this morning, but there are a lot of serious questions that a move like this generates that Mr. Greenberg's short, abrupt notice fails to answer. For one, how much is one of these subscriptions going to cost? The answer can be found here at the Sun Sentinel's digital subscription sign up page: $4.95 a month.
What do you get for that? Well, you might get access to the paper's "eEdition," which is a copy of the actual paper in a special viewer that I suppose makes the paper mobile device friendly although the Herald's version of the same system [at $1.99 a month] notes that the "[t]he web version of The Miami Herald Digital Edition Newspaper is currently not compatible with the iPhone or iPad because of its use of Flash." Then again, you might get access to the regular internet version that you now get for free. But it's hard to tell given the lack of information.
Another obvious question is whether or not there are enough people out there willing to pay for content that is already provided to a large degree by any variety of different news sources in South Florida. In a recent column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, a move to paywalls by Gannett Co. is noted but Pexton explains why the Post won't be doing the same thing...
Industry experts say that, to make a paywall work, you have to have a loyal core of readers who come frequently to the Web site and stay awhile. This core has to be several hundred thousand readers strong before it makes sense to charge them and take the risk of losing more fickle users who will go elsewhere for online news.The Post may be the only paper in the country who is counting on more readers but, hey, good for them. The Sun-Sentinel's daily circulation in 2011 was 175,000, according to a Herald article that is reposted here.
The Post doesn’t think that its core of loyal readers is large enough yet to consider a paywall, but it hopes to get there in a year, maybe two.
Here's what I think.
The Sun Sentinel is no NY Times [who also is running a somewhat successful paywall system] or even an LA Times that maintains a daily circulation of over 600,000. It's a onetime decent local newspaper that has been run into the ground by Sam Zell and his cronies and has been left to rot in the South Florida sun for much too long. Legions of excellent journalists have been fired or have left because of bad management and steadily decreasing morale problems that have been unaddressed by each successive new wave of management to the company. Advertising revenue has continued to fall across the newspaper industry. Many newspaper executives like Mr. Greenberg have run out of ideas of how to become profitable and are seeing paywalls as a last ditch solution to the problem.
After years of neglect, the Sun Sentinel just isn't capable of producing enough unique content to motivate readers to pony up a subscription fee month after month. Readers will simply go to the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post or any one of a number of local TV news websites. Or they'll get creative like LA residents. After a few months, the Sun-Sentinel will be forced to reconsider their paywall initiative or it will become just another bad decision by the Tribune Co. that will further decimate the newspaper.
As best I can tell, the Herald and Palm Beach Post have not addressed this latest move by the Sun Sentinel. My guess is they're too busy considering where to place their new, beefy Broward Bureaus.