Saturday, June 22, 2013

Eighth Council Member

The elections are over and the results will be interesting to watch. This will be a very different council then the one we've had for the past few years.

It's been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to running for election, I've been moving into a new home. House hunting took up more time then I figured, and for a while I wasn't sure if I would still be in SMD 2. Still getting settled and I'm still in Lakeview, SMD-2.

I enjoyed my campaign although I didn't have the time to put in the effort needed to win. I enjoyed the forums and meeting voters and my supporters. I will do better if I run again. I learned a lot, especially from the news coverage, write ups and letters. I especially liked that the Standard times called me the eighth council member. Quite a compliment but it got me thinking.

It's common to refer to the press as the fourth branch of government or sometimes the fourth estate. That's because the press has the function and responsibility of keeping the public informed about the what, where, why, how and who of government and politics. It's seen as a watchdog that helps citizens keep their government under control and in check. Among the keys to open, honest, good government are the press functions information, communication, research and reporting. At the local level, that function could be called the eighth council member. I like that because the main reason I attend so many council and other local government meetings is so I can provide information and reporting. Need to do more of that then I have been lately. ConchoInfo and the other bloggers and the posters on facebook and twitter, etc. are truly an eighth council member. Wish I could say the same about our local press.

Right before early voting started the Standard Times changed the rules. With little advanced notice, SAST put up a paywall. All of a sudden content that was freely available was only available to paid subscribers. An active and popular online community of posters was effectively shutdown because even many ink on dead trees subscribers, as my fried Jim Ryan calls them, didn't have their subscription linked to their online presence for one reason or another. The online comments went from hundred each day to single digits in the middle of one of the most important local election campaigns we've ever had. This limited the access local citizens had to election information for a while until the paper move all the campaign coverage back outside the paywall. It also cut off most of the discussion and online feedback we had seen in past elections and were seeing until the paywall was erected. I realize that papers are struggling to stay in business, not to mention make a profit. I know that changes had to be made just to keep the paper in business but I do have to question the timing and wisdom of what I see from my perspective.

If I was a conspiracy buff, I could probably make a compelling case that the timing of the change was partly to influence the election. The papers editorial view point and the regular letters would still be readable but the online discussion and feedback were effectively silenced. I'm sure this change had been planned for months in advance but there is no doubt that this change directly affected the election discussion and had an impact on the outcome. Would online discussions like we had in previous elections have changed the outcomes? Would a greater participation in online discussions have affected voter turnout? Probably yes to both questions but we will never really know.

I also have to wonder about how Scripps determined what to charge for their newspaper subscriptions. I went to the scripps home page and checked the new subscriber rate for almost all the papers they have. At $15.99 for printed and $14.99 for online only, the Standard Times is the most expensive paper to subscribe to in their chain. The next highest one was Memphis, TN Commercial Appeal at $14.99 and $13.99. The rest ranged from $10.99 to $12.99 for the dead tree edition, and charged $9.99 for online only access. San Angelo has one of the lowest per-capita pay rates of any newspaper market, and yet the Standard Times charges one of the highest rates of any paper for online access. I'm afraid they are pricing themselves out of the majority of the local market. This change in subscriber model and recent price hikes could actually hurt their bottom line. I'd be willing to bet that online traffic whether measured by page views or click thru's or what ever measure you choose are down and when the traffic goes down advertiser revenue goes down and advertising dollars are still the dominate way a paper make money.Same thing applies to the printed edition.

At a more fundamental level though, it seems the paper is resigning from participation as part of the eighth council membership in favor of being mostly about marketing and entertainment. Seems to me there were many ways the paper could have derived revenue from online services and still had a free, open forum and information exchange on the political and government issues of today. Until they figure out how to do that ConchoInfo and the rest of the local bloggers and online community will be happy to fill the need for the eighth council member.