An old-school outlier of the digital news business is gambling on an expansion in a time of shrinking media, pitching readers in Newfoundland and Labrador on its unwavering commitment that local news is worth paying for.
On Monday, owners of the subscription news outlet AllNovaScotia will launch a sister site, AllNewfoundlandLabrador, hoping to persuade a new audience of well-connected Newfoundlanders to buy into a strict paywall model that seeks to restore a sensse of value to digital journalism.
The original Halifax-based site, launched in 2001 and then relaunched a year later after a false start, has become a must-read for a small but devoted group of Nova Scotia readers. It was founded by David Bentley, an idiosyncratic but disciplined journalist who apprenticed in the trade under revered British editor Harold Evans and later created the east coast satirical magazine Frank.
The site has been published only online from the start, and focused on business news, distinguishing it from its daily newspaper competitor, the Halifax Chronicle Herald, which has been locked in a bitter standoff with striking newsroom staff since late January. But it is AllNovaScotia's revenue strategy that sets it apart: It costs $15 per month for the first two months, then $30 monthly after that, though an account at the full rate can have three readers. Advertisements provide about 20 per cent of revenue, but the site survives on readers' willingness to open their wallets.
"The jury's out on paywalls, to some extent," Mr. Bentley said in an interview. But subscriptions have kept his outlet "solidly in the black," without outside investment, through a period of upheaval in journalism. "We've been in our own little space. … You can sort of see all this sturm [und] drang going on all around us."
AllNovaScotia rigidly enforces its demand that every reader pay. Other journalists are prevented from buying subscriptions to avoid having stories poached, and the site prevents readers from copying and pasting text to curb sharing. Subscribers found to be passing around stories from the site can expect a diplomatic scolding.
The aim is to beat back "this silly idea" that news is "just sort of available on the Internet," Mr. Bentley said – that it "sort of comes in there by magic."
AllNovaScotia employs 19 newsroom staff. His daughter, Caroline Wood, is the site's publisher, and other family members work on the five-person business side. There are no newsroom meetings, but editorial staff are tight-knit – 11 of them bought in as shareholders in the company in 2012.
While virtually every other news organization has added video and multimedia capabilities, pushing stories to readers through social media to find a wider audience, AllNovaScotia has effectively ignored Twitter and Facebook. Even photos rarely accompany articles written in straightforward, reporterly prose.
"In many ways, it's a real throwback to all sorts of traditional best practices in journalism," said Kelly Toughill, director of the School of Journalism at the University of King's College, who has studied the site's strategy.
Staff made the decision to expand into Newfoundland last year, partly because the province's economy was booming at the time, and opened a St. John's bureau staffed by two journalists, Alex Bill and Samantha Long. The plummeting price of oil has brought about an economic slowdown, but AllNovaScotia's owners are pressing ahead with plans to hire two more local reporters to AllNewfoundlandLabrador, which will compete for attention with the St. John's Telegram.
In the short term, Mr. Bentley's ambitions are modest: It would be "really good news" if the new site attracts 1,000 subscribers at $30 per month, and he expects even that will take time. After 15 years in business, AllNovaScotia has about 9,400 paying customers, whom Mr. Bentley describes as an "exclusive insider club."
That's another key part of the site's appeal: It is read "largely by the professional class in Halifax," Ms. Toughill said. "Anyone who makes important decisions in Nova Scotia needs to read AllNovaScotia."