Media Monday Edmonton: Linking in the local paywall era

In December 2012, the paywall came to Edmonton when the Edmonton Sun launched SUN+. In May, the Edmonton Journal followed suit with the Postmedia paywall. It was only a matter of time before local media decided to try the approach made popular by the New York Times. Maybe they’ll help a little, but paywalls are unlikely to save media organizations, especially local ones. Time will tell what kind of an impact they have here in Edmonton.

For my own news consumption, I haven’t really been affected by either paywall. I’m a print subscriber of the Journal, so I get full digital access as well, provided I login. I don’t read the Sun particularly often to be honest, so I find I don’t run up against the limit there.

Where I have been impacted is in what I link to. If you did an analysis of all of the websites I have linked to over the years, particularly in my weekly Edmonton Notes, I don’t think it would be a surprise to find the Edmonton Journal on top. The reason I link there is simple: they cover more local news than anyone else, often sooner than anyone else, and almost always better than anyone else.

Lately though, I have been trying to avoid linking to the Journal. The reason is also simple. I hate the experience someone might have if they click through and have reached their paywall limit:

journal paywall

If you encounter that screen and try to close the dialog, you’re taken to the Journal’s homepage. You don’t get to read the article I sent you there to read. Now that’s fine, you need to pay if you’ve reached your limit. And if you don’t want to pay, then you shouldn’t be able to see the article.

But that’s not the experience I want someone to have coming from my website. Links are the currency and soul of the web, and I don’t make them lightly. If I’m linking to something, it’s because I think it is worth you taking the time to click on it.

I have never been particularly happy about linking to the Journal, actually. The biggest problem used to be that if you clicked on a link that was old enough, there’s a good chance the article would no longer be online. It’s a baffling strategy that I’ve never understood. In some cases I have used the canada.com trick to try to keep the links valid for longer, but there’s no guarantee they’ll continue working indefinitely. There almost never is on the web.

The Journal’s paywall has changed the equation. Now it doesn’t matter how old the link is – you could have a poor experience just by virtue of clicking on the Journal’s website too many times. That sucks, in my opinion.

The solution to this seems simple, right? Just link to another source that doesn’t penalize readers for reading! The problem is this: more often than not, there’s no one else worth linking to.

That sounds harsh, but it’s true.

Here’s a couple of recent examples. Let’s say I wanted to link to Mayor Mandel’s comments on turning the Yellowhead into a freeway. The Journal is my only option (here’s the canada.com link). They’re the only ones who wrote about it.

What about today’s news that the first signs are up on the site of the new downtown arena?

CTV has a video, but no story (and that video page is horrific…there’s no date or time anywhere on the page!). iNews880 has a 354 word story with a video and a couple photos. CBC has a 138 word story with a single photo. Metro has a 272 word story with a single photo. The Edmonton Sun has a 454 word story with a photo, though the story is not really about the signs (they took a different angle which is not a bad thing). But remember they too have a paywall. Global has the "best of the rest" in this case with a 578 word article and a video, though the article is mostly quotes.

The Journal’s article clocks in at 565 words and has two photos. But word counts are just one indicator to look at. In this case, as in most others, the Journal’s article is best because of the information it contains1. It has quotes like all the others, and it tells you what the signs are for, like all the others. But it also gives you the context of the project – where it is, how much it cost, how a previous Council vote led to this, what the DBA’s research has found, when construction will start, when the Oilers are expected to start playing in the new facility, the impact on Northlands, and more. There’s no question you’ll be better informed after reading the Journal’s article.

That’s the one I want to link to, if only I could be sure you’d get to read the wonderful article I just described.

It probably sounds like I’m lamenting the state of local media. I actually think this is potentially a big opportunity. Why couldn’t someone other than the Journal produce high quality content consistently? There’s no secret sauce at the Journal for doing so. Surely another organization could do what they do. It just takes resources (time, effort, money, widgets, algorithms, whatever).

Which brings us back to the paywall. Producing high quality content consistently isn’t free. If nothing else, it takes time. Postmedia (and by extension, the Journal) seems to think that the paywall can help to cover the cost of producing that content. I don’t think that’ll turn out to be the case in the long run, but I hope I’m wrong. It would be a shame if the only thing the paywall accomplishes is to make the best local content harder to get.

1 – To be clear, I don’t think the Journal’s article is perfect. It doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it’s on the web – there are no links, no interactive media, etc. But it does contain the best information in the text itself.