As befits a business-media outlet, Richmond BizSense is applying caution in its foray into the world of paywalls. Editor Aaron Kremer has seen the idea of paying for online content fail at many websites and succeed at a few others, and he thinks he has a good plan.
But if not, he says, "This won't make or break us."
At press time, Kremer said he hoped to have the paywall up by late September.
The idea is to ask readers to pay $35 a year for access to BizSense Pro, which will supply customers with weekly foreclosures and circuit-court filings from Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. This information is available to anyone, but you have to visit multiple court clerks' offices regularly, which requires time most people don't have, says Kremer. "Our hunch is that that data is very valuable."
He doesn't expect the casual reader of Richmond BizSense to join the service, but local developers and other business owners may very well want to take advantage of it. After all, if you see in a court filing that a potential client isn't paying his bills, Kremer says, that information may save you from financial disaster.
BizSense Pro was expected to launch in late August or early September, but the date was pushed back to take care of a couple of glitches in the payment system, which "needs to be close to perfect," Kremer says, because customers will enter their credit card numbers there.
Paywalls continuously come up as a possible solution to the problem newspapers and other media outlets are having — losing advertising money and subscriptions, in part because they're giving away content online. I hate to bring up the old (and sexist) saw of "not buying the cow," but it seems to fit.
It's not that people are no longer interested in the news, but unless every outlet restricts its content, online readers will find it elsewhere for free.
Business and sports outlets seem to be the only ones that have succeeded at the paywall game, by supplying nitty-gritty statistics or scouting reports for a fee. Mainstream publications have had much less success; the New York Times placed its marquee columnists and some archived content behind a wall in 2005, calling the project "Times Select." According to news reports, Times Select made about $10 million over two years, but it still was considered a failure. In the end, not enough people cared enough about reading Maureen Dowd or Richard Friedman opine about the events of the day. At least, they didn't care enough to pay for it.
The Times is putting up a second paywall to come out in 2011, a "metered model" that will allow a few free visits to nytimes.com before charging the reader for further access. It's similar to the models used at the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times .
Kremer, who founded Richmond BizSense in 2006, says, "We are in the black, although some months are pretty tight." Ad sales are fairly strong, and if the paywall works, it's basically the icing on top of the cake. Thirty-five dollars is not a high price to pay for extra access, which may include banking coverage in the future. In any case, Kremer says. "We're not going to disappear if it doesn't work."