Can Local Newspapers Survive Behind A Paywall?

It's a bold move, that's for sure. The Rotherham Advertiser is bravely walking into the no-man's land of local newspaper paywalls. The weekly title is to charge 20p per article to a maximum of 40p in any one day.

The paper has told Press Gazette that the move is a reaction to pressure on its 15,000 print circulation as more readers choose to consume its stories online -- which, to state the obvious, raises a question over the financial viability of the newspaper. 

Regular readers will know that whenever the country's advertising revenue forecasts are released, this column points out that, very roughly, local papers are losing something like a fiver in print for every pound they make in digital. It's not a good position to be in, but the question has to be asked -- will people pay 40p per day to read two or more articles on the newspaper's website?

It's an open-ended question because everyone in journalism will wish them well, but is there any evidence to show there is an appetite for people paying for access to local stories?

Traditionally, printed local newspapers have been bought by older people who are simply in the habit of buying a paper. That doesn't exist so much with younger age groups who, if they do read the local news, will probably do so online.

And there we have a massive issue. If your local newspaper is still going, you almost certainly live in a relatively large town or a city. Take a look at the BBC News website and it offers stories for just about anywhere in the UK -- Rotherham stories, for example, can be found here. This is, of course, the BBC -- so there will never be a charge for the content.

All this adds up to the very simple question of why someone would pay to read local stories on The Rotherham Advertiser when the BBC may be offering something similar for free.

Now, the paper will almost certainly have a lot more depth and local flavour to it, which the BBC will find it hard to compete with -- and so one can only hope that is what the good people of Rotherham decide is worth 40p per day.

Reach tried a similar experiment where a local paper's website, Examiner Live, charged a maximum of one pound per week for full access. The trial was heralded as a success, but was ended and the paywall was lifted. So, one may have grounds to question whether the paper was putting a brave face on or whether the trial really was a success worth repeating.

One can't help but suspect "The Rotherham Advertiser" may well be making a similar announcement in the future. It worked well and was such a success, we won't be repeating it.

Everyone who wants to see properly funded local newspapers thrive will be wishing them well, but realistically, charging for news is difficult enough as it is -- let alone when it's local news and may well be offered for free online by the BBC.

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