Don’t be afraid to tell your readers your journalism is valuable

Jennifer Hefty

Originally published on Medium

At the Fort Collins Coloradoan, we’ve been a Trusting News partner for three years. Over the course of the project, we’ve focused on several strategies —from labeling our stories, to showing our personality, to explaining how we are different from “the media” as an overall entity.

The most rewarding aspect for me always is when we can put several of those strategies in action to combat a problem — and really make a difference.

In early July, we made a change with our paywall that many of us inside the newsroom felt was long overdue. Prior to the change, we had a paywall on our site, but if a reader was coming to us via social media, they could read unlimited stories. With the change, any reader (no matter if they come from search or social or directly to the site) will have the same limited number of free stories each month.

Many of our readers from social media, Facebook especially, hit the limit almost immediately. And we heard about it in almost every comment thread for days.

As a newsroom, we had talked internally about the change and we were all in agreement: This was the right decision to help preserve the future of local news in our community. We love being able to support our community, but we need their support to keep doing what we do each day. We were not going to apologize for asking our frequent readers (who were viewing more than five free stories in a 30-day period) to support us.

And we all committed to repeating our message of why our work is valuable as many times as it took.

The change did happen without warning to some, so I felt it was important to announce the change — and also explain to our readers why we felt it was the right thing to do.

I need to note one important thing here: The comments on the Facebook threads weren’t all critical. There was a chorus of dedicated supporters who stood up for us. As much as I wanted to explain the change, I wanted to profusely thank those individuals. There are few things as heartwarming as seeing your community rally around you with comments such as:

“Journalists are being unjustly targeted now and we need to support the good work they do … please subscribe in order to help them survive and to keep informed.”

In my column, I explained why we are making the change: News isn’t free to produce. And I also explained how we would handle comments that instructed folks on how to get around the paywall or displayed our whole stories for free.

Our plan to sustain local journalism in the future is dependent on our subscribers. Others will certainly find ways skirt our paywall. But we hope you won’t.

This way, there were no surprises in discussion threads moving forward.

We’ve noticed that folks have started posting comments on the Coloradoan’s Facebook page with instructions on how to get around the paywall. We’ve removed those comments because this is stealing.

Others have started posting snippets of our articles or screen shots of our reporting into the comments. We’ve removed those comments because this is copyright infringement, and it’s illegal.

Each day, I respond to comments and messages and explain why we value the work we do, why it’s important, and how it impacts the community. I try to explain how and why we make the decisions we do. This column was no different: It was authentic, the sentiment was personal, and I hoped that it would help build trust with our readers.

The results were amazing. In the week following the paywall change, the Facebook conversations and my column, we had more than 300 new digital subscribers. Typical weeks see less than a third of that growth.

While our team was growing somewhat discouraged at the sheer amount of complaints they were seeing, it was heartening to remind them that we had more than 300 new supporters — and there certainly weren’t that many folks complaining.

More remarkably still, that chorus of supportive readers that I mentioned before? It had grown larger and louder. We are now at the point where before I can even reply to a comment complaining about paying for our journalism, at least one (if not more) of our other readers have already jumped in explaining why local journalism is vital to our society.

If you desire solid writing and information, you seek it out. You don’t expect it handed to you, free, on a silver platter.

When we lose the fourth estate we lose everything in this nation. Everything.

It was a good reminder to us of the power of journalists telling their own individual story and personally advocating for the value of their work. And doing that over and over and over again.

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