The Morning CalMy local newspaper, The Morning Call which is owned by the Tribune Company, publishers of The Chicago Times and the LA Times, among other has announced it will be changing it’s online terms to paid content. It’s been nearly two months since the move was announced, but with the end of the free versions of online content readers are starting to become outraged. I’m going to make an attempt to point out why this is not only a bad idea but one that will ultimately bring an end to my local newspaper.

Full disclaimer, I get paid to write articles for other sites, I understand nothing in life can be free and those who create work, tangible or not, should be compensated. Randomn3ss has been a passion of mine for years as a way to explore my own writing and more specifically in this case, there is no option on The Morning Call’s website to leave comments for the article, which I find odd, so I’ll rebut it all here, piece by piece.

The Morning Call’s publisher is quoted as saying,

the decision to begin charging for digital content is based on readers’ strong demand for local news, features and sports on the Internet and mobile devices

That’s fine, but it’s been free since at least 1996, the earliest date the Wayback Machine has a cache of. So to establish a timeline, that’s 15 years of publishing content online. In those 15 years we as a society have drastically changed how we choose to read and consume material and now have more options than ever. It is not the readers’ strong demand for content, it’s more a matter of how we want that content, and when we want to read it.

The article goes on to boast some rather impressive stats, including a 62% spike in page views from 2005 to 2010, of which I don’t attribute much to the website as I do to how we consume our information. It’s faster, easier and more likely for the large majority of readers to consumer information at their jobs, either at lunch or on company time than it is to get up early and read a paper at the breakfast table. Readers are also more likely to read more articles in a digital version because each article contains links to other articles. Some more impressive stats are mentioned, like August 2011’s page views at 18 million. These are important numbers.

As the article continues, the publisher gets on his soap box and spouts some crap about how amazing it is that the growth is due in part to the in-depth local news coverage and that forthcoming they intend to provide readers with innovative new ways to read content and get weather on whatever device they want to. Right here is part of the ignorance that will bury The Morning Call. More on this in a minute.

When The Morning Call switches to paid content, non-paying readers will only be able to see 10 pages per month.

Directly quoting from the article:

A drop in revenue from print advertising helped drive the trend to charge for content, as well as the realization that advertising based on Web page views cannot sustain independent local journalism, especially in a bad economy, said Ford Risley, head of the journalism program at Penn State University.

Risley noted that news gathering is a labor-intensive and expensive business.

This is an interesting note, because the economy was great in 1996, even after the dot com bust of the 2000’s it was still great. What’s really going on here is that The Tribune is using The Morning Call as a guinea pig to see if paid content will work on their larger newspapers.

Aside from shifts in technology and advancements in how we consume information, The Morning Call, under control of The Tribune has always been a step or five behind where it needs to be. Wikipedia reports daily readers of printed material around 94,000 and Sunday’s paper at 121,000. That’s actual papers delivered to paying customers. The people I know who personally pay for the paper rarely actually read it, much less the entire thing.

The newspaper industry has, up until 20 years ago, had free reign on profits and margins, double dipping if you will. They charge advertisers based on the number of subscriptions they have and charge the consumers for the content, which is then laden with advertisements. No one has successfully done this with a website that supplies news and that is because unlike start-up’s and venture capitalists out of Silicon Valley, no one in the publishing world ever listens to what the consumers want.

The Morning Call’s website has always been out-dated, poorly laid out and riddled with horrible advertisements. The latest version of the site is designed around a fairly friendly 980 pixel width, happy to suit most peoples computers. Ads crammed on both sides of the body of most articles bring the actual content readability down to just 362 pixels. This article has no less than 14 ads on it, not including more ads linking to internal The Morning Call articles that are not related at all to the content of the story. The page is so heavy with ads that even on my FiOS Internet connection it takes almost 6 seconds to fully load everything, watching all the ads load in the status bar of Firefox for confirmation.

A key to generating revenue from any website via affiliate marketing or ad sales is to not only target the consumer but to not forget that they first came to your site to read the information. The Morning Call is making it difficult to actually read the articles, regardless of their high traffic rates.

Taking a look at the numbers, 100,000 subscriptions to the printed version means that roughly 1 in 8 people from The Lehigh Valley subscribe to the paper, an amazing accomplishment, one that really couldn’t be much better in my eyes. Then you look at the 18 million page views. The rough math says that every single person in The Lehigh Valley viewed about 23 pages of The Morning Call’s website that month. That number is astounding. Anyone running a commercial website would be thrilled with these numbers, yet The Morning Call says they are broke and now need to charge for online content. They are broke because they have poor delivery of online content and can’t make ad revenue stick, that’s the real reason.

Constant change to the newsprint and online version of the site has left readers wondering where articles can be found, and how can they find them. The website is confusing for the older generation who are moving from print to digital. The photo galleries are horrible, forcing one to view a single photo at a time then click the dreaded next button, in some cases 20 or 30 times to see all the photos. This is done to increase the page views but it hinders the user experience, greatly. The lack of moderation in the comments is appalling, especially in cases where people have passed away due to causes other than natural death. Viewing The Morning Call on a mobile phone or tablet is painful because the web designers didn’t integrate browser awareness technology which would know I’m on an iPhone and adjust automatically for me, instead I need to remember to go to mobile.mcall.com. This is especially annoying when following @mcall on Twitter and clicking a link from my phone, again the normal site is so ad-heavy that it’s nearly impossible to actually get to the content and because the site isn’t smart enough to push me to the mobile version, I’m left with a bad experience. This doesn’t even touch on the horrible Twitter practice that The Morning Call has where it primarily act as a talker, using Twitter to deliver the new articles on the site, not writing actual tweets of interest and rarely engaging with their audience.

My personal feelings is that The Morning Call can and will see the same decrease in numbers as when Mayfair moved from a free event to a paid event. Furthermore, no where does it say that if I pay for a digital subscription will it be ad free. I wouldn’t mind paying a few bucks if the content was ad free, or if there wasn’t equally as good and free content out there. You’ll see a huge spike in sites like WFMZ and Lehigh Valley Live, without a doubt they will benefit from The Tribunes poor choice.

What if anything can fix this? The Tribune needs to stop treating the Internet like a printed paper and hire some consultants and more importantly, bring a few qualified user experience people in to redesign a site that is better for the readers. Take the focus off selling ads and back to providing readable quality content, after that the click-through rate of the ads that remain will drastically increase.