Whirled behind the wall

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Tulsa's sole daily newspaper, the Tulsa World, will launch its new paywall this coming Monday, according to a story at PaidContent.org, which, ironically, is free. The paywall will allow viewing only 10 locally-produced stories a month without a subscription. According to the announcement in the World (see it free while you can), an online subscription will cost $16.99 per month, with discounts for paying for six months or a year in advance. Print subscribers will get the online version free; $12 per month will get you a Sunday-only print subscription plus "unlimited access to [the paper's] digital products."

The PaidContent.org story notes that this is not the World's first paywall:

The paper decided to charge $60 a year for an online-only subscription in 2000--and had attracted 2,000 online-only subscribers by the time it was taken down in 2005, according to a Newspaper Association of America report. Publisher Robert Lorton III told the NAA that the removal of the paywall resulted in a tripling of the newspaper's online pageviews and online ad revenue that was more than seven times what the World had been able to bring in from online subscriptions.

I can certainly appreciate the need to generate revenue to pay for news coverage. And as someone who likes delving into local history, I appreciate the archival importance of print publications -- not just newspapers but also telephone directories, city "criss-cross" directories, and street, highway, and fire insurance maps. However incomplete or biased that record may be, at least with a newspaper you have a contemporaneous record that some significant event occurred.

To the paper's credit, it appears that the World is making an effort to minimize the annoyance factor to subscribers and to occasional visitors drawn to a local story of national interest. The metered approach should keep the paper from being shut out of search engine results; that was a problem with their earlier paywall. PaidContent.org quotes the paper's web editor as saying the system was developed in-house by a team of 13 designers and developers. That will allow them to control the site's inner workings and to avoid software license fees. On the other hand, with custom software, they will lose the formal and informal product support that comes with using a commercially available or open-source platform in wide use.

That said, the likely result of the new, friendlier Whirled paywall will be an increase in visitors to the websites of local TV and radio stations, who will continue to offer their local news content online free of charge, as they already do over the airwaves.

The paywall won't fix the Whirled's biggest problem: The paper long ago lost the trust of the very people who ought to be a local paper's lifeblood -- the Tulsans who are passionately engaged in civic and political activism. These people from across the ideological spectrum are the sort who want details about, e.g., this week's planning commission meeting, who would value local in-depth news content enough to pay for it -- if they felt they could trust it.

The problem for the Whirled is that many, perhaps most, of these people have experienced the cognitive dissonance that comes from attending a public meeting and reading about it in the paper the next day. Perhaps a key point in the debate was omitted, perhaps a seemingly harsh statement was run without its ameliorating context, perhaps an especially unflattering or (occasionally) flattering photo of one of the protagonists ran with the story. And there's the suspicion that the significant omission, the sneering photo, and the comment out of context weren't the result of carelessness but were deliberate. Even if the bias is the result of ideological blind spots and group think, the effect on the potential readership is the same as if it were the result of a grand conspiracy.

Over the years I've been involved in local politics, it's been my observation the Whirled has consistently chosen to side with the few and against the many. That's a problem when numbers, the larger the better, are at the heart of how you make money.

Pro-lifers, historic preservation advocates, people concerned about illegal immigration, neighborhood activists, Tea Partiers, Tulsa City Councilors, and tax hike opponents wouldn't expect the Whirled to take their side all the time. They'd just like to be treated fairly and respectfully, not as a lunatic rabble. But that kind of evenhandedness seems to be beyond their Ken.

I've said before that I think it will take some sort of public mea culpa, some acknowledgment that the paper has been unfair and unbalanced in its coverage of local issues, before many local activists are willing to trust the paper enough to pay for a subscription.

My trust in the Tulsa World began to erode in 1991, as a result of their coverage of a controversial zoning decision in Brookside.

Any lingering trust dissipated in 1992, when (according to Tribune editor and publisher Jenk Jones, Jr.,) the World's publisher refused to extend a joint operating agreement that had been in place for a half-century, leading to the closure of Tulsa's afternoon paper, the Tulsa Tribune. (I can't find the quote online, but it was in TU's daily student-run newspaper, the Collegian, about a month after the demise of the Tribune.)

I decided then never again to subscribe to the Whirled. While the World had the right to refuse to extend the agreement, the paper forfeited any claim to having Tulsa's best interests at heart, and I didn't want to see them benefit by picking up any new subscribers as a result of (for all practical purposes) killing our city's second newspaper.

On Twitter, I follow hundreds of active, involved Tulsans who represent a diverse range of interests and opinions. A similar group of hundreds (with a fair amount of overlap) are friends of mine on Facebook. So it's telling that my Facebook and Twitter feeds each had only three mentions of the new World paywall. It's another indication that the World isn't even on the radar for the very people who should be its most loyal constituency.

RELATED: In the December 1992 issue of American Journalism Review, investigative reporter Mary Hargrove wrote about the last days of the Tulsa Tribune. It includes this interesting tidbit:

Tribune staffers debated slogans for the back of the final edition T-shirt, playing off the name of the surviving Tulsa World. "Good-bye Cruel World" and "The World Is Not A Perfect Place. The Tribune Just Made It Seem That Way." The suggestions were posted on the wall along with a few harsher sentiments including, "Roses are red/Violets are blue/The World got it all/And we got screwed."

The slogans ignited the lingering animosity between the two papers as an angry World publisher had one of his photographers shoot pictures of the T-shirt doggerel. (The Tribune rented space in a building owned by the World.) World Publishing Co. President Robert Lorton called Tribune Chairman G. Douglas Fox the night before the closing and demanded the slogans be taken down. The signs were removed.

On the last day, Tribune staffers were warned they could not re-enter the building after 3 p.m. Maintenance workers began changing the locks at 11 a.m. as staffers watched in disbelief -- one more humiliation.

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Bob said:

Excellent commentary, Michael.

With each dying breath, the Lorton's World reaffirms one of the principal reasons for the demise of the dinosaur media......

Although unknown to me at the time, somehow I'm not surprised at the pettiness of the Tulsa World executive management toward the Tulsa Tribune employees.

P.S. Are newly elected local officials still required to make the pilgrammage, hat in hand, to the offices of the Tulsa World to have their "official" photograph taken?

JW said:

The other thing you should know (which can only be gleaned from insider info) is that the advertising dept, particularly online are, is a case study for dysfunction and ineptitude. Because of this, advertising failed to execute and support an online ad paid version. TW failed to get rid of advertising management who were stuck in the old paper ad ways. The end result is paper subscribers get hit with a $2 fee whether they read the online version or not and online subscribers now have to pay full bore what you can glean for free at all the TV news sites. TW could cure this problem by cleaning house in the ad dept and bring in talent familiar with online advertising. But they will continue to drag their dead wood.

David Van Author Profile Page said:

I was especially taken aback by Jay Cronley's comments in his article, today.
He likens any dissenter to a freeloader. I doubt that KOTV considers their viewers that way? I especially wonder why my college journalism class taught me that advertisers are the real customers (subscribers only cover their specific distribution costs). Heck, radio even offers free give-aways to caller number 7!

These Whirled folks ought to learn from the lack of success of satellite radio!

Would any local TV survive as a subscription?
There once was, but it was a mid-80's UHF porn channel. I shouldn't know that and I'm surprised that I even recalled the tidbit of Tulsa trivia.

So unless the Whirled is better than Howard Stern or the Night Owl Theater, they would do well to study capitalism and respect precedence.

Laramie Hirsch said:

"On the last day, Tribune staffers were warned they could not re-enter the building after 3 p.m. Maintenance workers began changing the locks at 11 a.m. as staffers watched in disbelief -- one more humiliation".

How typical. The Whirled is a just a bunch of jaded 15-year old girls. Their glib take on life in this town is easily ignorable, as they continue to confine themselves more and more in their self-imposed midtown elitist/downtown prison.


Roy said:

Ceased subscribing to dead tree World 'bout 10 yrs ago. Winced frequently at evident slant of articles. Often believed that which contrary to what written actually fact, and that not just with editorial writing. Slowly and reluctantly came to conclusion that I erred in supporting that which opposed nearly everything I thought important.

Years later I learned about World on line. Checked it sporadically, sometimes missing a week, sometimes checking several times a week. Skipped nearly everything except news, and skimmed that reading very few articles. But, especially when away from Tulsa on business, this enabled a quick way to sift thru news and some sort of connection to home. Guess I'm gonna find a new source. Not gonna revert to supporting the World (beyond providing hits that aid claiming advert dollars).

On line comments responding to World's articles show that it has an agreeing audience. But these don't represent those who will shape the city. Wonder, too, if it will turn out these provide the income either by payment for E privileges of by enough hits to make the E advert income needed to keep the World going.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

David, I remember the station you're talking about; I actually interned for them a couple of months after they went on air in March 1981. KGCT-41 was local programming from the old Lerner Shops building on the Main Mall from 7 am until 7 pm, then scrambled the signal for subscription-only IT (In-home Theater), which did indeed include late night dirty movies. Cable didn't have universal coverage back then, satellite TV required big dishes, VCRs were still a luxury item, so I guess they thought there'd be a market for an over-the-air equivalent of HBO. There wasn't. If you're an insomniac just trying to entertain yourself in the wee hours, Dr. Gene Scott for free is better than anything for a fee.

The same is likely to be true for local news. Those who want in-depth news will go directly to sources of unmediated information, like TGOV. Those with a more casual interest in local affairs will likely feel that they get enough of it from the TV stations and talk radio. Especially in our current economic situation, most people will choose free hamburgers over $25 prime rib.

Natasha said:

I guess my take on all this is, if I managed a paper and was prepared to walk into a business decision that I knew would probably draw great ire from the community which I aimed to serve, I certainly wouldn't allow my employees to take to public forums like social media and the paper itself to insinuate that anyone who might be confused/disappointed by the decision is a hater, a freeloader and/or a whiner. But, that's just me.

In case you're wondering whether something like Natasha describes could really happen: Assistant Editor Sarah Hart: The Tulsa World’s metered model: Quit hating and support your city. Neat how Ms. Hart (on her private blog, it should be noted) wraps her employer up in the city flag, as it were.

I had installed the Tulsa World app last year because it was the only app available for local news. However I have since installed the apps for channel 2, 6 and 23. I no longer need the Tulsa World app. It was removed quickly this morning when all the articles listed were links to the article about the firewall. Maybe channel 8 is in the process of producing an app where I can get local news for free. With little time these days to check out the news, paying for a subscription for anyone is a waste of money, especially when I can catch the local news at times for free.

It will be interesting to see how successful this venture will be. If so it will not be with my dollars.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 1, 2011 12:55 AM.

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