Publisher: @TheMauiNewsHI Preparing To Put Up Online Paywall

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It isn’t every day (or decade) that the Maui Weekly reports an actual news story, but stranger things have happened. According to a story in that paper’s April 25 issue, Maui News Publisher Joe Bradley has decided to put up a new online paywall for the daily sometime in the next few months.

“We have to charge or we will go out of business,” Bradley reportedly said at a Rotary Club meeting in Kihei about six weeks ago, according to the Maui Weekly story (the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspaper Group owns both The Maui News and the Maui Weekly).

This is the first time anyone anywhere on the island has said anything about Maui’s sole daily paper charging for online stories and content (which, like many papers, has been offered to readers for free for the last 15 or so years). Reached by phone, Bradley told me the paper is still working on the plan.

“Ours will be like the [Honolulu] Star-Advertiser’s,” he said. “It will not be metered. Most of our local stories will be behind the paywall.”

Bradley said the paywall idea originated at The Maui News, and they would be the first paper in the Ogden chain to institute one. What’s more, he said he believed The Maui News was the last daily paper in Hawaii without an online paywall. Bradley added that he’s still not sure when the paywall will go up, but that it will roll-out simultaneously with an online “replica edition” as well as a Maui News tablet app.

Paywalls are an increasingly popular but still controversial method for daily newspapers large and small to deal with declining advertiser dollars, circulation and basically the entire business model that has sheltered them for more than a century. For many decades, people paid for newspapers for a variety of reasons–to read horoscopes, check classified advertisements, peruse television listings, read movie reviews and even find out what what was happening at last night’s city council hearing. All of that was bundled into one convenient package dropped every morning on your front porch (or, more often, in your planter box or on your roof).

People paid a subscription price that, ostensibly, covered all that but in reality paid for little more than distribution. Advertisements paid the rest.

All of that information is now found–for free–in various locations online. In the early years of newspaper websites (we’re thinking the mid-1990s), papers offered their stories to web surfers for free to generate traffic. But now, with the advertiser model in freefall, papers are experimenting with charging people to read stories.

Some paywalls are metered and relatively porous, like The New York Times (indeed, they can be fooled by a simple browser cache clearing). Others, like the Wall Street Journal, have long held their stories behind subscriber paywalls.

What’s more, papers with paywalls sometimes send mixed signals to their readers. During times of great calamity (like Hurricane Sandy or the recent Boston Marathon bombings), papers will often disable their paywalls, allow everyone free, temporary access to their stories. This is a backwards situation in which papers charge consumers for regular, mediocre news but hand over truly vital news for free.

In any case, Bradley said his plan is for a hard paywall.

“We’ve looked at the Star-Advertiser,” Bradley said. “And their print circulation actually went up after they put up the paywall, so I guess they’re doing something right.”

Indeed, paywalls can boost a paper’s print circulation. For the Star-Advertiser, which that instituted a hard, Wall Street Journal-like paywall in August 2011. According to Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for the six months between March 2012 and September 2012 (the most recent I could locate), average weekday print circ jumped 26.3 percent.

And boosting print circulation certainly seems to be a priority to Bradley. The most recent ABC figures I could find (for the same period as mentioned for the Star-Advertiser) show The Maui News circulating 16,708 papers Monday-Saturday and another 18,961 on Sundays–virtually the same numbers the paper moved back in late 1999, when Ogden purchased it but way down from the 22,000 or so papers the circulated in mid-2008.

The problem though is that paywalls also hurt web traffic, and that would seem to be the future of journalism (print subscribers tend to be in their 50s and older, while web news consumers are often much younger). According to this April 4, 2013 column in TheStreet.com, paywalls have done serious damage to a number of daily paper’s web traffic.

“A Columbia Journalism Review article from last June says the Dallas Morning-News circulation dropped 9 million/month after it instituted a paywall,” wrote Dana Blankenhorn. “The Memphis Commercial Appeal saw a 30% decrease in traffic to get 1,000 paywall subscribers. The Columbia Tribune lost 25% of traffic and a shift to a local, free rival in order to secure $80k in revenue.”

Bradley seems to be gambling that because The Maui News is the island’s sole daily newspaper (and source of “90 percent” of stories about Maui), people will pay to read it online.

But The Maui News isn’t the sole source of news about Maui. In addition to this paper (which also post stories up on our free MauiFeed, MauiDish and MauiVents blogs nearly every day), MauiNow.com posts huge numbers of news stories (the vast majority of which are quickly rewritten County of Maui press releases and Maui News stories) on its free website. Even when The Maui News starts guarding its online news stories with a paywall, there will be nothing to stop other news websites from continuing to post vast quantities of stories online for free.