When I posted Newspaper charges for reading obits online: double-dipping on death, I invited Ernie Schreiber, editor of the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, to respond. I posted his response as a separate post, because I think it’s fair to give him his say uninterrupted. But he raised points that demand or merit a response on my part. So I respond here, republishing his email to me again in full, this time with my commentary interspersed:
It’s disappointing to learn that when you left the newsroom, you left behind fairness, the bedrock of credibility in our profession. As you well know, an ethical journalist reaches out to the subject of a story before publication of that story, not afterwards. And an ethical journalist does not engage in silly name calling.
Such cheap-shot reporting is not what I would have expected from a respected former editor who led the Newspaper Next movement.
That was commentary, not reporting. I doubt that your newspaper reaches out to people you criticize in columns or editorials prior to publication. You do that for news stories. Commentary can include cheap shots and silly name-calling. Read the SPJ Code of Ethics and Bob Steele’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist. If you find anything in either of them that says name-calling or one-sided commentary is unethical, I will apologize.
Actually, silly name-calling is kind of petty, even if it’s not unethical. I do apologize for that. I should have simply noted the irony of your name and left it at that. Sometimes even with sarcasm, understatement is better writing.
Here are some facts, though: Your move was newsy Monday when you started charging to read online obituaries. I finished writing Monday night and posted while it was timely. My post linked to two very friendly blog posts that gave extensive coverage, quoting you heavily. Minutes after I posted, I emailed you, inviting response. As quickly as possible after I received your response, I posted it online uninterrupted, even though it wrongly accused me of being unethical. That is more than fair. And that is how I operate. (I didn’t do it just for show because you accused me of being unethical; note the similar handling last year of responses from Michael Schudson.)
Nonetheless, you raise valid points about our experiment with paid content in Lancaster, and I am quite willing to respond to them.
Thank you. However contentious this exchange might be, I welcome and appreciate your response.
First, you label Journalism Online “a profiteer” and LancasterOnline “a sucker,” suggesting that somehow it fooled us into this “fantasy-based” experiment. That’s wrong. We proposed the experiment of a metered paywall for out-of-market non-subscribers. Journalism Online supplied the software for that payment plan.
Thank you for clarifying your relationship with Journalism Online. I stand by my descriptions, though. Whoever initiated this transaction, I believe you have been a sucker in believing the notion, peddled by JO and others, that charging for online content is a meaningful solution to any problems you face. And I am quite sure that Journalism Online will benefit more from its paywall schemes than the newspapers it purports to serve.
Second, you and Mark Potts have ridiculed the numbers on which we built our experiment, saying the volume of readers shown in our analytics cannot possibly be there. You most likely are correct; I am skeptical of the numbers as well. That’s why I cut the number s by 90% — to arrive at levels of revenue that would seem more in line with common sense.
As noted in the original post, I wasn’t going to get into the numbers. I just linked to Mark, who analyzed them well. Please update us on how this goes. Even though I didn’t analyze the numbers, I will update with actual performance if you will share those numbers.
The fact is we don’t know for a certainty how many frequent out-of-market obituary readers exist. We don’t know their ages. We don’t know their reason for reading. That’s what this experiment is all about. We’re trying to learn the real dimensions of this audience.
I think a little research was in order here.
Third, you accuse us of charging twice for obituaries, double-dipping you call it. It’s no more double-dipping than charging to place a display ad in a newspaper, then charging a reader a subscription to read it.
No, that is where you are wrong. You charge readers for reading (buying, actually) the whole newspaper. Online you are singling out obituaries. That’s where the double-dip comes in.
Subscribers pay for the journalism that our news organization produces.
If that’s true, your organization is unique, or at least highly rare, among American newspapers. Subscribers rarely cover the cost of paper, ink, gasoline and labor to produce and distribute the newspaper. Advertising pays for the journalism.
Online readers support us indirectly by seeing and acting on advertisements. But out-of-market nonsubscribers do not contribute either way. We’re asking them to support us as well.
If you offered out-of-market subscribers a way to send flowers or make reservations to stay in Lancaster when they come for the funeral (as I suggested last year), they most certainly would contribute. I bet you’d make notably more money that way.
Fourth, you suggest that our plan is squeezing money from grieving people. In fact, the person who comes to our site solely to see the obituary of an old friend or loved one will not be charged. That’s one of the reasons why we set the meter high, at seven obituary views. We hope to avoid the circumstance in which a one-time reader, or a casual browser, is asked for payment.
You already told me that you don’t know who’s reading your online obits and why. But now you know they aren’t grieving? I think it’s highly likely that your regular obituary readers are people with a large number of aging friends in your community. So no, they aren’t grieving every time they visit. But I feel confident in my description. These are people who grieve the loss of friends frequently and watch the obits carefully so they can send condolences.
Fifth, you suggest that people can find obituaries elsewhere. True. If people are willing to search through eight or nine funeral home websites daily, they might find most of the obituaries for their communities, although not those placed by out-of-town funeral homes. What we and every newspaper-based news organization offer is ease of access – a one-stop place to read all a community’s obituaries.
Here’s my prediction: Someone else will offer such a one-stop place in your community before the end is out.
Sixth, you suggest that our experiment will push “older people, the most loyal group of newspaper readers” to find news elsewhere. How do you know that about our out-of-market online readers? How do you know their ages? How do you know they are newspaper readers? How do you know they will be unhappy and go elsewhere? For me, these are all open questions to be tested in this experiment.
I’ve been a newspaper editor. I know your demographics because they used to be my demographics. I have fielded the complaints about problems in online obits from snowbirds reading them. The only part of that I am unsure about is how many of them you would push to find news elsewhere. I was only asking if you really wanted to push them. Newspaper readers have put up with a lot. Maybe they’ll put up with this. But don’t bet on it.
For all I know, these are people in their 40s, 50s and older who have been transferred recently to jobs at a distance, or spend time at a vacation home, or moved away decades ago but still stay in touch with their hometown friends. This first test will help us define that audience.
Oh, yeah, people in their 40s check the obits of their old hometown online repeatedly. I wouldn’t bet your franchise on that being what this “first test” will find.
Seventh, you suggest that distant readers will erupt in anger at the notion that we charge them to read the obituaries of aged friends, giving us a black eye in the community.
Your experiences with readers must be different than mine. When I take the time to explain why newsrooms need new sources of revenue, most readers – especially older readers who appreciate the quality of newspaper journalism – respond positively. They may not be giddy about paying, but they understand the reason.
I’d like to sit in on that discussion, when you explain that even though you already charged the family for the obituary (which the funeral home probably marked up) that you’re charging their distant friends and relatives again to read the obits (but not the quality journalism). My experience is that newspaper readers are smart and they have really strong BS detectors.
Finally, I ask you to examine the bitterness and anger that infuses your writing about “old” media. It’s unbecoming. While you sarcastically trash efforts to earn new revenue for the print-based newsrooms you left behind, many of us are determined to find new ways to bring in the dollars that support America’s highest-quality journalism.
I have no bitterness toward old media. I spent more than 38 years working in the newspaper business and have hundreds of friends working for newspapers. I don’t think you will find many people who have fought harder than I have to help newspapers change. As you noted, I worked in the Newspaper Next project, taking the message of change to thousands of journalists and newspaper executives around the world (who responded mostly with timid baby steps rather than bold transformation). While I still worked for a newspaper, I proposed and worked to achieve a new business model, the Complete Community Connection. C3 was an effort to push newspapers to pursue genuine new revenue streams, rather than trying to squeeze the last drops of blood from the paid-content turnip. I encouraged newspapers to pursue a mobile-first strategy before others beat them to that opportunity (which slips away as you waste time and energy on this obituary double-dip). You might find someone who has proposed more “new ways to bring in the dollars” than me, but I doubt it.
You say that I left newsrooms behind. But since leaving the employ of a print-based company, I have done presentations on C3, mobile-first strategy and social media for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Inland Press Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, American Society of News Editors (still a print-oriented group, despite dropping “paper” from its name), Iowa Newspaper Foundation and Alliance of Area Business Publications. I will be doing presentations this fall for the National Newspaper Association and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. I changed jobs, but I did not leave newspapers behind. I am still working to help newspapers succeed.
I have loudly and openly cheered the innovation that John Paton and his Journal Register colleagues are trying with the Ben Franklin Project. I don’t know how successful they will be, but I am delighted to see a newspaper company truly trying to move forward.
I will agree, though, that I am angry about the shortsighted decisions that newspapers keep making. And the obsession with paywalls is one of the things that makes me most angry. Executives who cling to paywalls rather than pursuing truly innovative opportunities are costing my good friends their jobs. Each time I examine that anger, I renew my commitment to help newspapers succeed, even if they are now, in some ways, my competition.
I hear people (some of them still working for newspapers) who bitterly wish that newspapers would just die, hoping that might accelerate the development of the next generations of journalism-based businesses. I don’t wish for that. And I get angry that newspaper executives seem bent on letting (and even making) that happen.
If this experiment fails, you can gloat and chortle with delight.
I don’t gloat, chortle or delight when newspapers fail. I mourn. I wish I were wrong about this. I wish innovation were as easy as newspaper executives too often think it is. When this experiment fails, I will be sorry for the hard-working journalists at your newspaper and any others who follow you down this dead end (pun intended). Because we all know that when newspapers fail at developing new revenue streams, they protect their bottom lines (for the short term) by cutting staff.
I’ll move on to the next idea. And the next. And the next.
Better get moving.