Region Media, publishers of RiotACT and About Regional, has moved to reassure readers that content on all its sites will remain free, with news that the long-awaited Canberra Times paywall is about to go up.
The Times, which still publishes a pay-for-print edition, has announced that it is introducing subscription packages for online readers, and hoping that its audience will be willing to support its journalism.
In an online story headlined ‘Support the journalism serving the national city’ and accompanied by a promotional video, The Canberra Times says the new pay-for-view system will launch in early June, with subscription offers and prices to be announced in the coming days.
Region Media Co-CEO Michael McGoogan reaffirmed the company’s commitment to providing high-quality, entirely local content.
“We have a fundamental belief in the importance of locally owned and locally produced news,” he said.
“Region will continue to create the best local stories by hiring the best local journalists, like Genevieve Jacobs, Tim Gavel, Ian Bushnell and John Thistleton. We have one of the largest and fastest growing digital audiences in the Canberra region and we will continue to invest in a new content-driven business model not dependent on advertising or subscriptions.
“We can guarantee that there will never be a paywall, and that Region will continue to be a forum for vigorous public discussion.
“We are very proud to be part of this community and we’ll continue to invest in growing our mastheads to become the region’s leading source of quality local journalism.”
Region Media Group editor Genevieve Jacobs said that one of the group’s great strengths was the depth of local knowledge and networks shared by the editorial team.
“At a time when local media is fragmenting fast, RiotACT and Region Media is now almost unique in retaining highly experienced local journalists and growing new local talent. This gives us an unparalleled connection with our own community, standing apart from the syndicated content models that are coming to dominate the major mastheads,” she said.
“I’ve always believed that local content and local knowledge matters most to this audience. The support we receive from the community gives Region the capacity to keep bringing the best stories to the place where we all live.”
The move to a paywall comes after The Canberra Times changed hands in April when Antony Catalano and Thorney Investments acquired the Australian Community Media (ACM) network of more than 150 local news websites and newspapers from Nine in a $125 million deal.
It had long been mooted but uncertainty around the fate of ACM and The Canberra Times, part of Fairfax Media before its sale to Nine, had delayed the change.
After being free online for so long, the switch to a paid system will be a challenge in a culture unused to the subscription model. Media commentator Peter Cox told RiotACT in December when Nine ‘merged’ with Fairfax that the immediate result from a paywall would be a fall in audience numbers that would impact advertising revenue, and it would remain to be seen whether they could be rebuilt.
“You do reduce the number of people viewing your paper, so for advertisers that’s less people who are going to see them in the area they’re selling into, and because of that it’s a bit of a vicious circle as you continue the spiral downwards,” he said.
Assistant Professor in journalism at the University of Canberra, Dr Caroline Fisher said at the time that going behind a paywall was risky and a big test of loyalty.
“You’ve really got to offer really strong content, niche content that you can’t get anywhere else, and at the moment the amount of local coverage in The Canberra Times has been shrinking so if they are going to go behind a paywall they’re going to really want to offer a whole bunch of local Canberra content that we can’t get elsewhere,” she said.
But they will face stiff competition from free online providers in Region Media’s increasingly popular sites, RiotACT and About Regional, and the ABC.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is also entering the digital space with its Canberra Star site launching in June but it will likely also be behind a paywall.
There are suggestions that Mr Catalano wants to have a strong focus on national politics but his only indication has been to say that he aims to strengthen the identity of the paper as a “highly regarded political commentator”. “It will be carving out its own niche…there is no other singularly focused paper on politics,” Mr Catalano said last month.
“The Canberra Times can be skewed heavily to federal politics and some local Canberra issues.”
This strategy has been attempted before, most notably under Michelle Grattan, but ended in failure and her dismissal as editor.
This has always been a balancing act for The Canberra Times but Region Media’s focus remains firmly on the Canberra region.