Digital First’s paywalls and what they mean in Detroit

I’ve had an interesting vantage point, at The Detroit News, from which to watch and learn more about the journalism debate over whether news content should be offered for free on the web or put behind a paywall for subscribers only.

Digital First Media, which famously eschewed paywalls, took over management of our sister Media News Group papers in the fall of 2011. Within a short span of time, Gannett, which controls our business relationship with the Free Press, moved toward paywalls at most of its properties the following spring, although not in Detroit.

With such proximity to two companies headed in different directions, you couldn’t help but wonder which would win out.

The first substantive answer came this week, when Digital First announced that it would bring subscription paywalls to each of the 75 dailies it manages. That doesn’t include The Detroit News, but apparently does include the suburban Detroit newspapers The Oakland Press and Macomb Daily, not to mention the News-Herald in the Downriver area.

Interestingly, John Paton’s announcement gives only grudging concession to the tactic (not strategy) he’s now employing, calling it a short-term fix to replenish the gas tank. Fair enough. There’s an argument that these subscription-based paywalls, in which a print subscriber also pays for web access, are really just wringing more money from the existing (and shrinking) print clientele.

So significant was the announcement, however, that the Columbia Journalism Review called Paton “the Gorbachev of paywalls.”

Whatever the long-term impact of the change, the result could change the media landscape, at least slightly, in Metro Detroit. The two big dailies, for now, have no known plans to institute a paywall. Meanwhile, you’ll have to subscribe to The Oakland Press and Macomb Daily if you want to view any more than a few articles each month, and I’ll presumably have to do the same to keep up with the Ile Camera.

Will that send readers to the Detroit papers? To local TV? Will they open their wallets for the local coverage?

We’ve got more learning to do.

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