We’ve been damn lucky over these nearly 17 years now. Damn lucky to have so many dedicated readers and advertisers who believe in Lagniappe and who’ve helped this little newspaper swim upstream during a time when so many newspapers have sunk to the bottom.
Lagniappe started in the middle of a recession, coming in hot on the heels of a similarly sized publication that had burned bridges all over town, and faced a still-pretty-close-to-full-strength Press-Register. Plenty of folks said starting a newspaper in Mobile was a loser idea that would later in life provide nothing more than an amusing anecdote about bankruptcy.
But we got lucky. And we worked hard to constantly improve this publication and live up to our driving theory that if Lagniappe was filled with great articles readers and advertisers would come. And the paper grew from 5,000 copies every two weeks when we started, to 30,000 a week, where it now stands, making Lagniappe Alabama’s largest weekly newspaper.
Even as we grew, the newspaper world as a whole was heading the way of typewriters that were once an integral part of what they did. The internet hit hard and newspapers that had once thought it was cute to put all their work online for free now found themselves being eaten alive by the monster they helped create. Classified advertising died, destroyed by Craigslist. Readers canceled subscriptions in favor of reading the same stories online for free, and display advertisers turned more and more frequently to the web.
But newspapers also couldn’t figure out a way to make the web pay the way print had. Now the return on all those stories and reporters typing away was pennies on the dollar, so they started laying people off, reducing coverage and generally becoming less and less important in their readers’ lives.
Mobile was one of the harder hit cities in the country because our daily’s ownership in New Jersey got mighty antsy about this new technology and pulled the trigger on a pretty massive change of focus. Suddenly cities like Birmingham, New Orleans, Portland, Mobile and many others no longer had daily newspapers. Readers and advertisers in those cities were told “exciting changes” were on the way, but they were only exciting if you enjoyed watching these papers wither and die.
Now the P-R is essentially a bureau of whatever’s left of the Birmingham News, and Lagniappe is out there grinding every day, working to be this area’s newspaper.
I tell you all this story — one most of you probably know — to explain some of the changes we will be making very soon that are designed to both improve our coverage of this area and also to make sure Lagniappe is financially secure enough to last another 17 years and hopefully many more after that.
We announced last month we would soon be putting more effort into our coverage of Baldwin County by creating a Baldwin edition. That starts next week. Gabe Tynes is moving to our office in Daphne as bureau chief and will oversee our efforts to make sure Lagniappe is providing as much Baldwin news as possible each week. It’s not an entirely separate newspaper, though, as many seem to think.
Essentially we will be moving some of the Mobile-oriented news out of our front part of the paper and replacing it, and the cover, with stories generated from Baldwin. Most of the regular features — cuisine, sports, arts, etc. — will appear in both versions, as will all advertising. Advertisers will still be reaching 80,000 people a week in print — and hopefully more.
All stories will appear on lagniappemobile.com, so you don’t have to miss out on anything. But that brings me to the subject of our website.
Any steady consumer of journalism has probably noticed by now that most newspapers are erecting paywalls at a breakneck pace. After years and years of trying to make it on clicks alone, the news business has realized it’s time to go back to the way things used to be when people expected to pay for their daily news.
Most of the nation’s biggest papers now have a paywall on their websites, as do lots and lots of small ones. We’ll be joining them in the next couple of weeks. Yes, the print version of Lagniappe will remain free, but we’re going to begin charging $1.50 a week for readers to access our website, and just $2 a week for web access and a paper delivered to your home through the U.S. mail. Call it a convenience charge, or insurance against living in a news desert. But we think it’s time to ask our readers to buy into having a newspaper.
When people pick up the print version of the paper, it gives us the readership numbers to help sell the ads that pay for what we do. Unfortunately, even though we routinely have 40,000 or more people online per month, it doesn’t translate financially. Google and Facebook have snatched up the vast majority of the online money, which is another reason you’ll eventually see just about every publication erect a paywall.
I’d like to get you all chanting “Build that paywall!” in excitement before this column ends, but I realize it’s no fun having to register for anything online, even if it is only 21 cents per day. But realize if we can get enough of you doing this, it will mean more reporters covering more news and keeping you better informed. I don’t even think you can get a Jolly Rancher for 21 cents anymore, so this is pretty inexpensive.
One of the other reasons having our readers involved financially is it also helps us maintain editorial independence without fear of financial reprisals. In other words, if you guys are a big financial part of what we do, we don’t have to worry as much when an advertiser gets pissed we won’t write glowing stories about their favorite political candidate. Unfortunately that kind of thing does happen.
So hopefully many of you will find having access to everything we write, including web-only stories, worth spending that 21 cents a day. We would feel damn lucky if you would.
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