Paywall, audience, and the future of one publication

Are paywalls the future or the end of journalism?

That’s an experiment I’m in the midst of testing myself, in my journalistic silo.

My publication, National Observer, launched in May 2015. Over the next twelve months, it garnered nearly 5 million unique visitors with powerful political coverage of Canada’s 2015 federal election, followed up by relentless, deep reporting on COP21 and climate change. Our mission is to cover energy, environment and politics, and that’s what we did, only occasionally veering away into subjects like refugee mental health and personal accounts of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes.

Nominated for 5 awards, National Observer earned the respect of journalists in Canada with a commitment to investigative reporting and in-depth news features. When Justin Trudeau deposed Stephen Harper, a new era began in Canada and National Observer (in my humble opinion) perfectly reflected that bright new time with its fresh design and upbeat team…. reporters in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver.

Funding came through Kickstarter campaigns, private investment, and advertising. And through 12 wonderful months, we gave it all away to our readers for free. Our biggest audience was Toronto with Vancouver following close behind, then Ottawa, and Calgary. Ten percent came from the U.S.

But National Observer isn’t a charity, we don’t have charitable status and, while we’re applying for B-Corp status, the fact is, we’re ‘for profit’, although barely profitable. And watching the changing industry around us, we opted to go paywall. Yes, traffic has dropped a tad. Yes, some readers are irate. But mainly we hear things like, “Worth every penny, keep up the great work!’ Or, “People must pay to keep great journalism like yours alive.”

How will this all unfold?

I can’t say yet.

Did we make the right choice? I think we did. For the first time since we launched, we have steady revenue the site itself generates. This is unbelievably exciting to see. Every day, more readers sign on. As a publisher, I know that we are going to have to work extra hard, be extra entertaining and creative, and compelling, break more investigative journalism know one else in Canada will. Only this will move more readers to get their credit cards out and pay. We can never stop producing at a very high bar. That’s what excites me. Our primary relationship is now with our readers.

Will they make us successful? Will we earn their attention and loyalty? Enough of them, that is.

Time will tell, my friends. Time will tell if this is the end, or the beginning.

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