Hard times and a hard paywall in Kerteminde

On Saturday, one more Danish news website went from free to fee and launched digital subscription. The news website in question is that of Kjerteminde Avis, which is a hyperlocal one that serves the public of Kerteminde in the north-eastern corner of the Funen (approximately 24,000 citizens).

The outlook for the subscription model bringing economic salvation to the pressured local could be better, but American research as well as the development i Northern Norway can lead to cautious optimism.

Like other local or regional news websites, Kjerteminde Avis uses the hard paywall. Subscription now costs 20 DKK per month or 50 DKK for three months.

Being founded in 1879, Kjerteminde Avis has a long history. However, the last couple of years have been characterized by a transition to web-only publication, frequent shifts of editors-in-chief, and serious economic challenges; last year, the news website asked its readers for donations in order to make ends meet. The news website carries ads, predominantly from local businesses.

Donations and advertising, however, seem not to have been sufficient, and so the time has come for implementing proper digital subscription. In a situation of intense economic stress, that decision is understandable.

The news website aims at reaching 1,600 digital subscribers. That’s approximately seven percent of the population, and it’s an ambitious goal. Even if the news website succeeds in reaching that goal, however, it will be difficult to make the news production in Kerteminde economically viable. According to an earlier article in Kjerteminde Avis, the costs of producing the news website is a little more than 60,000 DKK per month. 1,600 subscribers and the current level of advertising will find only barely cover that expense. It will be an extremely tight budget where there’s no room for unexpected expenses or editorial development.

However, Kjerteminde Avis can find support in an experimental study from 2012. Here, Cook and Attari compared news users’ attitudes to the launch of digital subscription when told, respectively, that the subscription was justified in terms of building profits or of securing the survival of the news website in question. The results of the study suggest that users are more likely to accept digital subscription when the news medium communicates that it’s caused by questions of survival.

In its campaign leading up to the launch, Kjerteminde Avis has mentioned its dire economical situation repeatedly.

Furthermore, the small Funen news website can find comfort by looking north. In the Northern parts of Norway, hyperlocal thrive to such an extent that you can speak of a divided media marked.

On the one hand, there are the large newspapers published by national and transnational corporations. And on the other hand, there are small, hyperlocal newspapers that are only published to a very geographically limited audiences and that are owned locally. In their constellation, size, and target groups, these newspapers are very much like Kjerteminde Avis. In a study of this divided media market, Holand argues that the success of the hyperlocal newspapers is caused by support from the local community as well as public subsidies.

And that leads me to the reason why there could be hope for Kjerteminde Avis. The two sources for revenues used by the Norwegian newspapers are namely also the ones that it pursues: the support from local citizens (in terms of subscription) and local advertisers, and support through public subsidies. Later this Spring, the Danish Agency for Culture will announce who gets these subsidies in 2014, and Kjerteminde Avis has applied.

A few years ago, I interview the then editor-in-chief of Kjerteminde Avis for my PhD dissertation. He compared Kjerteminde Avis to the small village in the Asterix cartoons – the village that kept on fighting despite bad odds and a changing world order. The odds have not improved since then, and the hyperlocal news website might not get any more second chances it the economy does not get better (or at least stabilized) now. But as the research shows, that might not be impossible.

This post was written before the launch of the digital subscription on Saturday. However, Saturday afternoon, Kjerteminde Avis announced that it had reached 150 paying subscribers.

A Danish-language and slightly edited version of this post was published on MediaWatch today.

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