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Online Paywalls and TV: How TV News Can Fill the Void Left by Local Papers

October 2nd, 2019   ||    by Oriana Schwindt

In its infancy, the internet was thought of as a great democratizer—information could now be free. That phase is over, with more and more news organizations putting up paywalls. You might think these online paywalls and TV viewership would have an inverse relationship, but research hasn’t provided that link.

How did we get here, and how can local TV avoid the pitfalls that led to the rise of the digital paywall?

Why So Many Paywalls Now?

The ad rates for print and digital news outlets were never quite as robust as those for TV, with its trinity of sight, sound, and motion. But first with the advent of Craigslist eating into profits from classified ads, then the erosion of circulation, the bottom began to fall out of the print industry, and ad rates for digital outlets remained minuscule because of the infinite amount of ad inventory.

Myriad solutions have been proposed and tried, but one has stuck around: the paywall.

However, the paywall hasn’t been able to transform large national papers like the Los Angeles Times, according to the Poynter Institute. More than 2,000 local papers have shut down in the last 15 years, The New York Times reported—a loss that has led to massive news deserts across America.

There’s no research that shows a connection between an increase in local online paywalls and TV ratings surges. Indeed, according to Pew Research Center, it seems that online paywalls are losing share to social media.

How Can Local TV News Fill This Void?

The future of local TV news has its own pack of digital questions to face. Should they be streaming their broadcasts live? How much of their resources should local stations be devoting to digital-only content?

But local TV is still by far the way a plurality of Americans get their news, according to Pew Research Center.

“What we’ve seen is even meagerly funded local stations really beefing up local news reporting in recent years, in part to fill the vacuum left by local papers,” Adam Ragusea, a professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, told the Columbia Journalism Review.

This investment in reporting needs to continue to draw eyeballs starved for local content. The Knight Foundation has laid out a number of guidelines for local TV news stations to avoid the same fate as local newspapers:

1. Focus on Real Community Issues. Salacious crimes may attract attention, but they’re not good for building trust with an audience or for making an actual difference in your community.

2. Shake Up Your Format. Innovation, the Knight report said, is scary for executives but necessary in a landscape in which so many newscasts are copies of each other.

3. Hire Investigative Reporters. And give them the time and leeway they need to do the groundbreaking work they’re capable of.

The constantly shifting local news landscape produces a lot of challenges. But local TV news can still thrive.

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