Thursday, January 3, 2013

It's telling what's hidden behind the pay wall.

Literally tens of Houstonians had strong reactions to Chron.com's announcement of a new behind-a-pay wall site: HoustonChronicle.com.

On the surface, Houston's former newspaper of record slapped on a brave-faced smile, patted themselves on the back for what might as well have been eleventy Billion page views and then proceeded to transfer much of what was already available in the print edition, or the iPad app onto the web, shook hands and, apparently, went off to the latest Houston Media Round-table for a round of shots and pie.

Now, I like pie (especially of the pecan variety) and I'm understanding of the desire for a shot or two, despite my current drinking constitution typically preferring to keep them at arm's length, so I can understand why one would think it's time to say "job well done" and just sit back and watch the revenue come in.

But will it?

First off, there's no value-add to HoustonChronicle.com for a print subscriber who also has an iPad so there's very likely to be much revenue realized from that crowd.  Then there's the problem that their free site, Chron.com is still the place for breaking news and the City & County government's, often hilarious responses to it.  Also on the "free" site are the Chron's (now infamous) often horrible photo galleries which, as near as I can tell, serve only to allow young hipster staffers in cool eye-wear to let us in on what is fascinating them at the present time. The brain-trust at the Chronicle have also decided to keep the entertainment sections, mostly, on the free site meaning that interested readers will now be able to keep up with the goings on at burlesque parties and Eric Berger's fascination at playing Jr. Weatherman and Ecomentalist true believer.  Therefore, I have no doubt that the free portion of the Chronicle empire is sure to maintain their hold as the page-hit news capitol of Houston.

What concerns me, however, is what they've decided to place behind the pay wall.

First, The Apple Dumpling Gang and while it's true the Gang has been slightly less hideous since writing duties ceased to be the sole proprietorship of one Lisa Gray (oh but the Exclamation points!!!!) they're still prone to letting slip a logically tortured doozy from time to time and most of the people who might be reading these are doing so while sitting in their recliners, reading the dead-tree edition and complaining that Matlock can't be found on TV any longer.

Looking around the site at the other stories hidden behind the curtain there doesn't seem to be much that, as a dead-tree subscriber myself, (Wed-Sun) I can't find by turning a page or turning on my iPad.  In short, there's little financial incentive for people to pay additional money to buy reporting that's already freely available in the first place.  Think about this: The I-35 expansion story just above came from wire reports.

Even worse, despite the fact that I pay for the darn thing it's rarely read except for on Sunday when I spend 10 minutes going through the stories and then my wife spends around 30 minutes cutting out the coupons.  Worse still, the "News Plus" section that runs on Sunday is nothing more than post-dated stories that first ran in other publications such as the New York Times (ostensibly still operating under the Constitution) and the Washington Post. (amazingly, still in print)

Look, I get that it's not good to hide a story of a chemical release behind a pay wall. After all, it does little good to be a news outlet when you charge people to learn that they need to take their children inside before they puff up like a helium balloon and start floating in the jet stream to Mobile, but certainly you can find something of worth to place behind the wall that's not already found in other locations, usually for free?

One can only imagine, based on this business model, what the Chron's coverage of the 83rd Texas Legislature is going to resemble.  You'll have free photo galleries of the latest burlesque parties for staffers, Eric Berger's prayers to Gaea that something be done on climate control appear for free, while Peggy Fikac's sage advice that Republicans are trying to rent space inside the lady parts of Texas women in order to set up a Winter home, politics from a child's view (Falkenberg) and logical fallacies for dummies (The Gang) are safely snug behind a pay wall where no one can see.

On second though, when viewed that way, carry on Chronicle.  Good job.

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