Another national news story is brewing in our town. This time it’s about a news agency itself—the (take a long breath) Intelligencer Journal–Lancaster New Era. Yesterday they rolled out a new online paywall they believe will net them $10,000 to $500,000 a year.

What’s this paywall, and who will it affect? It’s a $20/year charge to out-of-towners who read Lancaster obituaries like they’re going out of style.

As reported by Bill Mitchell of the Pointer Institute:

Monday morning, the website for a midsized paper in southeastern Pennsylvania became the first to go public with the paid content system of Journalism Online, the startup engineered by Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and others.

LancasterOnline, which serves the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, began informing people who live outside Lancaster County and read its online obituary listings that visiting the obits page will cost $1.99 a month after they’ve viewed seven pages each month. Annual subscriptions cost $19.99.

Paywall message for LancasterOnline obituaries
Screenshot of the notice all obituary readers now see when they visit

Media analysts seem to think this is one of the most ridiculous ideas they’ve heard when it comes to online revenue models. For instance, Mark Potts writes:

Are they serious? Are there really that many people people visiting the Lancaster site to read obits? Really?

The folks in Lancaster claim to have done the math that proves there’s a substantial out of town audience for obits, though it’s based on a lot of guesswork (and probably proves, once again, that journalists really aren’t that good at math). Notably, Lancaster seems to base its projections on traffic numbers from the not-so-reliable Google Analytics rather than on data from the site’s internal logs, which would be much more precise. That seems odd.

According to Mitchell’s story, LancasterOnline estimates that 100,000 out-of-market visitors to the site read obits each year. And the site reckons that more than 10 percent of them do it—yes, read obits—several times a week. Okaaaay. Taking the math further, Lancaster estimates that nearly 90,000 visitors to the site read the obits at least once a week, and 17,692 visitors read the obits four times a week.

These numbers are preposterous. Remember, this is little LancasterOnline, not or I find it hard to believe that Lancaster has that sort of constant, repeat traffic to its obits—or else it’s got an audience with a truly obsessive fascination with grazing news about local deaths.

He’s joined by Steve Buttry, who writes:

If I were seeking to kill off newspapers (I’m not), I would try to persuade them to charge people to read obituaries online. Apparently that’s the plan of Journalism Online, a profiteer seeking to cash in not only on newspapers’ death wish but on the deaths of their readers.

Journalism Online’s sucker in this fantasy-based paywall experiment is the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era (oh, the irony in that name; I will call it the Old Era for purposes of this blog).

David Brauer joins in:

Laugh if you want — and I’ll admit, I’m tittering — but any small-town newspaper publisher will tell you obits are a pretty big deal for readers. In this case, LancasterOnline is making money coming and going (if you’ll pardon the pun): they charge survivors to place death notices, and now they’ll charge out-of-towners to read them.

(When the younger generations start dying, we’ll just inform everyone via social networks.)

This sure sounds like a low-revenue road test to me, but Lancaster Online’s editor thinks they can squeeze $100,000 out of the oldster demographic that keeps up regularly with far-flung deaths.

All I have to say is that the people who came up with this scheme are nothing like the cultural creatives who are engineering Lancaster’s future. This is preservationist, reactionary, and, I suspect, based on data that is (excuse the pun) dead wrong.

3 thoughts on “Out-of-Towner Intell Obit Junkies Must Pay

  1. While I agree with the criticisms and share the skepticism of the potential of this move, the one thing I will say is that LNP hasn’t jumped into this rashly.

    I was at a publishing conference all the way across the ocean in Berlin in early March and Press+ was there speaking. They announced then that they were encouraged by “beta tests” with a “small newspaper in Lancaster, PA.”

    Personally, I think setting the bar at 7 pages is conceding they won’t make much money on it. I suspect people seek out obits when they hear someone they know died, not just because they want to “browse.”

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