Steve Kelly, the editor of the Warrnambool Standard, said he would be “absolutely delighted” if Fairfax allowed him to erect a paywall for the 140-year-old newspaper.
He said he firmly believed that the work of the Standard’s 30-strong newsroom should not be “given away online”.
Instead, he would prefer to erect a paywall, using the income generated from it to fund more investigative journalism and a sophisticated online coverage.
Although he risked being seen within the company as “an uppity little country upstart”, Mr Kelly (pictured) said he believed the idea of a paywall was “a conversation that should be had”.
Mr Kelly, who has edited the Standard for the past six years, was speaking at a public forum in Warrnambool on the future of regional news, hosted by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism. He was joined on a panel of local media representatives by Laura Beavis of the ABC, Jeff Sly (Win TV) and Elizabeth Hart (Community Newspaper Association of Victoria).
The Centre’s director, Associate Professor Margaret Simons, who moderated the discussion, said she believed a country newspaper with a strong local following and good news service should be able to educate the population about the true cost of that news service while seeking subscriptions online.
“But it does call [your] bluff a little bit,” she added. “If your news service isn’t very good, if it’s something people feel they can do without, then obviously that model isn’t going to succeed and, in fact, you’ll lose readers hand over fist.”
Dr Simons added: “Given that we live in a world in which anyone can publish, there is always the possibility that a community-based startup will compete.”
She listed the community sector, real estate agents, advertisers, local business people and special interest groups as just some of the unexpected places from which competition could come.
If one of those organisations decided to start an online-only publication in Warrnambool offering free content, the Standard paywall could have some tough competition, Dr Simons continued. The success of a paywall was “a two-sided thing” that required a change of business model, but in some cases “a lift in quality” also.
Mr Kelly noted that there had been fraught attempts by metropolitan newspapers to place a paywall on their online content.
But he believed that regional publications were different because they were shielded largely by their extremely loyal readership and their monopoly on local news.
“Do we have an absolute monopoly on setting the agenda in this district?” Mr Kelly asked. “Well, my answer to that would be ‘Yes’. I think the radio station follows our lead. I think to a large extent [the ABC] follows our lead and I think to a large extent [WIN TV] follows our lead.”
For now, he said, “print is still absolutely king” in the regions.
“The reason I say that is because the figures speak for themselves. Our circulation is tracking well and 98 per cent of our advertising revenue is in print. So why change that?” Mr Kelly said.
Regarding a regional paywall experiment, he added: “What have we got to lose?”
Dr Simons acknowledged that monopolistic positions were protecting regional publications from the challenges that metro publications have been facing for several years.
But she pointed to the recent closure of regional commercial television outlets in South Australia as an indication that that protected position was unlikely to last forever.
Regional newspapers could learn from the experience of metro titles, particularly from their mistakes, a key one having been their decision to give away content online for free.
“I think the whole idea of giving away content for free is something which most of the world’s publishers did and are now trying to pull away from,” Dr Simons said.
Mr Kelly agreed. “The only way we can ensure the future of our journalism is to charge people for it online as well as charge them in print,” he said.
But he thought it highly unlikely that his paywall experiment would be taken up.
“Fairfax works in extremely strange ways,” Mr Kelly said. “I know there are numerous conversations going on about what the paywall model should be and if, and when, it arrives it will be rolled out across the empire rather than trying [first] with a little paper like ours, which I think is what they should do.”