Why It’s a Bad Idea for the Student Press to Fall in Love with Pay Walls

The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University is enjoying marginal success with its metered pay wall a bit more than a year after enacting it. At the start of spring semester 2011, the paper became the first U.S. student media outlet to charge a subset of readers for its content online, requiring a $10 yearly subscription fee for individuals outside the campus area who wanted to read more than three articles per month.

In an excellent recent MediaShift piece, Alexa Capeloto provided a progress report on the O’Colly’s efforts, confirming the paper now has 177 paid subscribers. The numbers beat the expectations of the paper’s general manager, even prompting him to already slightly raise the annual subscription fee to $15.

As Capeloto writes, “There wasn’t any national news on the OSU campus that might have lured a burst of new paid subscribers. They came slow and steady, never exceeding three per day. Looking ahead, [the GM] has budgeted $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from online subscribers for the next fiscal year . . . a mere drop in the outlet’s $700,000 budget, but a drop nonetheless.”

As a huge fan of innovation and experimentation within college media, I enthusiastically applaud the O’Colly for being a pay wall pioneer. But at the moment, I am still against the mass adoption of metered pay walls by student press outlets nationwide.

Financial Pinch

The hard truth is that student newspapers are financially struggling at the moment. The decade-long economic plights of the professional press have at last weaved their way into the land of college media. If not quite a time of reckoning, it is definitely a prolonged period of profound change– cutbacks, weary sighs, and hopefully a few spirited reinventions.

Some campus papers have cut the number of days they publish each week. Others have reduced the number of pages they print or their page sizes. Many are pulling back on staff pay and perks like conference travel. A few have appealed directly to students and alumni for funding help. A small amount have launched magazines in hopes of broadening their readership and ad appeal. And a few papers have even gone dark entirely, mostly at smaller schools or community colleges in which related journalism programs have also been shuttered due to state funding cuts.

Students are still reading their campus newspapers in print, by all accounts at a reliable, surprisingly high rate. But advertising is tougher to come by. Related school budgets in some cases are tightening or disappearing entirely. And student governments are getting occasionally restless as they look at papers’ financial bottom lines.

Amid this bleak backdrop– what USA TODAY describes as a pronounced “financial pinch”– any idea within reason to generate new revenue digitally is being considered.

Pay walls are a bold idea, to be sure, but not yet the right one for most of the student press. They embody what Bryan Murley at the Center for Innovation in College Media calls “the coins-in-the-couch model of making money.”  They may help papers scrounge up a few bucks short term, but at what cost?

Pay walls are still part of a closed online culture most netizens are not yet willing to broach. Within college media, they will hurt student learning and employment opportunities. And most student press outlets are simply not ready to provide the content and creativity paying readers will demand.

Student Media’s 1 Percent

The O’Colly is a top-tier publication, boasting daily content online and a huge alumni and supporter base worldwide interested in checking out what’s happening at Oklahoma State. In Occupy Wall Street terms, the O’Colly is among student media’s 1 percent.

By comparison, a large majority of student media appeal to a very small readership. While their content might be appreciated, paying for it will most likely be a deal-breaker for all but a few diehards.

We need to be honest: Most student newspaper websites are nothing more than slightly repackaged versions of their print editions. Many are not updated more than once a week when school is in session and barely at all during summer and winter breaks. They offer few, if any, multimedia extras. And the featured work can be a tad, ahem, inconsistent.

For free, they are fun reads, but most don’t scream worth-a-fee quality. Even with an über-cheap pay wall, it is hard to imagine most papers getting 17 subscribers, let alone 177.

To read more, click here or on the screenshot below.

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