The NZ Herald is about to put up a paywall and the stakes are scarily high

This is a big deal for NZ journalism, writes Toby Manhire. What will be paywalled and what won’t? And have they got the price right?

New Zealand media push notifications cannot often be accused of downplaying news, but the Herald’s announcement this afternoon of “one of the biggest New Zealand media moves of 2019” was if anything an understatement. After years of to-ing and fro-ing, the adoption of a paywall for the online version of New Zealand’s biggest newspaper is a massive deal for its owner, NZME, of course. But it’s a massive deal for New Zealand journalism more widely.

With a few notable exceptions, online news has been free in this country since the dawn of the internet. It might seem a wild thought to some people, but it costs money to do good journalism.

It turns out the idea that digital advertising would swoop in to pick up the tab abandoned by print advertising was a great big prank. The business of journalism continues to atrophy, around the world and in New Zealand. And so the fortunes of the Herald’s experiment affect us all.

Just last week, the editorial boss of NZME, Shayne Currie, was telling newbie podcaster Leighton Smith that the plans for the paywall were coming along nicely, and, he confirmed, it would be unveiled by the end of June. So today’s push notification came earlier than many were expecting. Digital subscriptions will be launched next week. It will cost $5 a week. It will be free to existing five, six and seven day a week paper subscribers. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of detail – we have to wait till next week.

The paywall project, which has been not just edited but managed by the admired and expert editor Miriyana Alexander, comes after many years of paywall talk at the Herald. It was close to being ready to go back in the days when Tim Murphy was the editor, but that would-be wall was blown down by Jane “Hurricane” Hastings, who as CEO was unwilling to concede the click race with Fairfax. After a protracted and expensive attempt by the Herald and Stuff to merge was extinguished by the regulator and then the courts, and with Stuff these days waiting to learn its fate, which lies in the hands of new, largely indifferent Australian owners, the success or failure of the Herald paywall is a very big deal for New Zealand journalism – for the craft and the business alike.

Will it be metered?

Some publications, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, offer a number of free articles a month, after which you hit the paywall (or you find a way to burrow under it).

The Herald looks unlikely to operate that way. The technology behind the paywall is the work of a team from the Washington Post who have been toiling away in downtown Auckland, but its closest analogue is said to be the UK’s Telegraph. That means a lock around the “premium” content but a lot of stuff outside the wall, enticing readers further in.

What will go behind the wall?

The “premium” band will undoubtedly include the work of the investigations team and the analysis and commentary filed to the Herald (ie not the stuff parachuted in from Newstalk ZB). The Herald has a strong gallery team in Wellington covering politics; most of that will presumably be paywalled. So will the features that appear in the print supplements. The major area the Herald has beefed up over the last 12 months is business, with the addition of a handful of top-shelf journalists eager to evacuate the NBR. That’ll all go behind the wall, and be a crucial element of its pulling power: easily the most consistently successful paywall projects have centred on business journalism. As for the rest of the news, sport and lifestyle run, my guess is it will be roughly a 50/50 split either side.

What will stay free?

Some mornings the front page of the Herald site sings, replete with high calibre, essential reporting and commentary from home and abroad. Some mornings it stinks, majoring in slapdash, error strewn belches of commentary by radio hosts and shabby imports from News.com.au and the Daily Mail. The perception that the Herald is all the latter is flat wrong – just look at the daily paper, the Saturday edition especially, to see how wrong it is.

But if all of that is locked behind the paywall, the shade gets harder to fight. And it becomes harder therefore to lure people to pay.

Will there be other stuff bundled?

Today’s announcement promises that next week will bring news of “more foreign, premium content from a range of internationally renowned mastheads”. The Herald already has tie-ups with a number of foreign titles, including the Washington Post. If it can bring readers anything close to full access to titles such as the Post – or the UK Times or the UK Telegraph or the Australian – that could be what tips people over the line.

Is the price right?

After surveying readers, and thinking long and hard about where to pitch the price, NZME have landed on $5 (though special offers are promised for next week). The rack rate for a seven-day subscription to the print papers is $18.80 – those who pay for the delivered paper get an online sub free – so it’s substantially lower than that. They’ll have thought hard, too, about the now-obligatory currency of digital subscriptions: coffee. Expect to hear a lot that you can subscribe to the Herald for the price of a flat white a week.

How does it compare with other publications? At a glance, and with the caveat that there are countless variations with deals and packages, some digital benchmarks: the Times (UK) is a whopping NZ $12 a week, the UK Telegraph about $4, the Australian $5.20 a week and the New York Times about $5. [Update, April 29: to avoid confusion, the above prices are intended as comparisons to the NZ Herald price; they reflect advertised cost after any introductory offer to domestic online subscribers.]

The NBR is $11.70 a week. The NZ business weekly may have the most to lose from a successful Herald paywall, but has built a strategy leaning heavily on corporate subscriptions, which should be unaffected. The pioneer of NZ paywalls, the Ashburton Guardian, is $4.20 a week, and that is not a drug joke, it’s just how much it costs.

Will it work?

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Dunno. Does anyone know? It’s one hell of a challenge to pull it off. I very much hope they do. I pay to get ye olde print Herald delivered every morning, and it’s money well spent. Maybe it’s not always obvious to readers who see it through the front page of the site or via social feeds, but the Herald is a bloody good newspaper.

One of the most popular sports on social media is slagging off the Herald and Stuff and the rest of us big and small. Fair enough. They, and we, deserve much of it. But if you really bemoan the MSM and its worst angels, do at least take a second to consider that good and sustainable journalism costs money to make, and that the model that has kept newspapers going roughly since the invention of the Gutenberg Press has mostly melted away.

If you can afford it, think about putting some of your cash into New Zealand journalism, whether that’s the Herald or the Spinoff, or e-Tangata, or whatever. You absolutely do not need to be spending money on good journalism to rip the shit out of bad journalism on Twitter. But if you do you will be paying to make good journalism happen.


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