Morning News Publisher Falls Off Wagon, Back to Paywall Again

It sounds like The Dallas Morning News is going to take another run at getting people to pay for their online content at some point next year. I am strongly in favor of getting people to pay the media for content, because I want the media to pay me. So any idea is welcome.

Publisher Jim Moroney III is quoted saying he’s interested in trying a third time, after two failures, to persuade readers to pay for online subscriptions, because he needs the money: “We’re now in the 10th year of our industry having cumulative lower print/advertising revenues,” Moroney tells NetNewsCheck.

That’s exactly my thinking. I, too, want money.

But in his remarks, the publisher of our city’s only daily newspaper seems to ignore content — the thing he wants to sell — and concentrates instead on means of distribution or what we used to call, back in the old print days, “the circulation department.”

Moroney says, “We’re just in the experimentation phase. We’re a little more in the camp of, ‘Distribution is important,’ and if we can get our content out there and read and they give us a chance to monetize it, that could be an appealing way to both grow audience and revenue.”

I don’t know what that means.

This is my thinking, based on the old circulation department model. It’s great to have all new pie wagons that can drive out to every neighborhood and drive by every address in the city, but in order to get people to pay you, you have to have something to put in the pie wagons. That’s what people pay for. The stuff in the pie wagons. Not the pie wagons.

So I have been trying to think of stuff Moroney could offer to online and mobile readers that they might pay for. I know I don’t work for him and shouldn’t be offering my services for free like this, but I’m really doing it for the industry and for journalism as a whole.

What would I pay for? What would I pay good money to read or look at if it were available only online or on my phone and the only way I could see it was by paying?

Really good stories. No, I don’t mean really interesting stories or well written stories. Forget it. I can get that stuff all over the place for free. I mean way better than that. I mean like huge secrets. A microphone planted in the mayor’s office, stuff like that. Enormous invasions of privacy. The real reason the city attorney has an enormous bulb of gauze taped to the end of his nose, according to what he told his mother on the phone last night, with a link to a recording of their call.

Incredible discoveries. How to turn dirt into gold and cause any member of your body to grow. Or shrink.

Really wonderful services that are available, like debt evaporation. A way to get your criminal history not only expunged from your own record but added to the record of someone else of your choice.

Personal online chats with famous people. Dial up Hillary: “Yes, Hillary Clinton here. Is this Mr. …ah ... let me see … Mr. Shults, down there in Dallas, Texas? What would you like to chat with me about today, Shultsie?”

I am sure you get my point by now; distribution is a relatively easy problem compared with coming up with content sufficiently unique to make it worth paying for. Not that some people don’t do it. Fortune had a story recently about the impressive success of The New York Times in coming up with what the Times claims is a million online paid subscribers.

But as Mathew Ingram points out in the Fortune piece, that’s because they’re The New York Times. There’s only one. People will pay for that. As he also points out, every person who does pay to subscribe to the Times is one more person who won’t pay to subscribe to anybody else online, unless it’s somebody who can tell him how to turn dirt into gold, etc.

I also wonder how many of those million Times online subscribers are like my own household: We switched to online because our home-delivered seven-days-a-week Times print subscription was costing us the equivalent of a small boat payment. Given the discount we got by going online, I would say the Times should not count us as a profit center.

I used to rag on the Morning News a lot more here in this space, because it used to be a far worse paper. Something happened. I don’t know what. We don’t chat a lot. I can see in lots of local coverage — the Trinity toll road, for example — where they clearly have taken the boot off the necks of their better reporters and allowed them a freer hand. But given the kind of amazing content it would take to suck real dimes out of the pockets of online readers, the mere removal of the boot from the neck seems like a very modest beginning.

And therein lies the challenge for big regional dailies. The Morning News isn’t the Lone Ranger in this. All of the big regional monopoly dailies are always under pressure from their few remaining big local advertisers not to rock the local boat too much, putting them in exactly the wrong posture for the kind of online splash they need to make if they hope to get paid for it.

That’s why they’ve tried everything else. I remember some years ago when The Los Angeles Times published a map showing people how to get to the mall. A friend sent me a copy. They were calling it “value-added” journalism. As it turned out, people already knew how to get to the mall, so it was not much value.

The kind of serious global authority the Times can claim for itself is something only the Times can claim for itself. That’s the point. That leaves totally amazing, disruptive journalism as the only hope for the rest of them. For both cultural and commercial reasons, the big dailies cannot do and will never do that kind of journalism.

By the way, I should have mentioned this up top, but you owe me five bucks. No Bitcoin.