Media

Spectator Gets Torstar's First Metered Paywall

By Joey Coleman
Published September 14, 2011

Please note there are disclosures at the end of this post.

The Hamilton Spectator is joining the growing list of local newspaper websites charging for online access to their news content. The change was announced yesterday morning on thespec.com by managing editor Howard Elliott:

Effective this week, thespec.com is adopting a metered model.

This means that each spec.com user may view a certain number of content pages in a given month, and upon reaching that limit, will be asked to purchase a monthly subscription for digital access. Print subscribers can purchase full digital access for $2.95 monthly. The price for non-subscribers is $6.95 monthly.

To begin with, we are setting that limit at 35, which means that users can view up to that number of articles per month and will then be asked to subscribe.

The Spectator is the first Torstar daily to experiment with erecting a paywall and one of the first major Canadian dailies to do so. This experiment will be closely watched across North America.

There are two major providers of commercial news paywalls in the market: Google One Pass and Press+.

Google's paywall is a new entrant to the landscape and only used by a handful of publications at present. Torstar has chosen Press+, joining the majority of online news paywalls in using that system.

Paywall Structure

I emailed Spectator managing editor Howard Elliott about the paywall yesterday morning. He promptly responded to my email with honest answers.

Mr. Elliott confirmed that access to thespec.com will be a monthly charge of $2.95 for print subscribers and $6.95 for non-subscribers.

He could not confirm if there would be exceptions to the 35-pageview limit for content arrived at via social media links. Spectator blogs are excluded from the meter and "special reports such as Code Red and other utility content will be exempt."

Similar to the New York Times, the paywall may be suspended during major events.

Asked what the goals for the pay meter are, Mr. Elliott responded:

To generate a small revenue stream from web traffic. We currently have more traffic than we can monetize through advertising and other strategies, such as migration to verticals. The limits we have in mind at present may change going forward.

Charging Twice for Content

The Spectator is charging for online content without increasing the value of that content. At the same time, they've forced their print subscribers to start paying twice if they also want to read the content online.

As one print subscriber tweeted yesterday morning:

@LarryDiIanni Larry Di Ianni
Having to pay to view Spec online will force some of us to choose btwn subscription or online service. Won't do both!

When a former mayor of Hamilton in his early 60s is openly musing about cancelling his print subscription because of the additional cost of accessing thespec.com, Torstar should stop and take notice.

The threat of cancelling a subscription is tossed around by readers of all publications (I received them often when writing for Maclean's and The Globe and Mail) and normally can be read purely as hyperbole.

Coming from Larry Di Ianni, a man in one of the Spectator's prime target demographics, it cannot be ignored.

My grandmother is a heavy user of thespec.com - she wants news now - and a loyal Spectator subscriber who gave subscriptions to the paper as gifts to me a child. I know she'll be none too impressed with the latest cost increase for the newspaper.

There is a point of no return. People get less content at a higher cost from the Spectator than they used to. I remember spending a great deal of time reading the paper every day - even a decade ago. Today, I take maybe five minutes to read the local section.

This appears to be another instance of the paper increasing prices without a correlating improvement in content or quality. In fact, this week's print redesign comes with up to 15 percent fewer words in articles.

In search of online revenue

I am convinced a better revenue model is needed for high quality journalism.

The Spectator is one of only a handful of organizations producing original news content in Hamilton and its competitors shamelessly reuse Spectator content instead of going out and finding news stories.

Without the Spectator, the news void in Hamilton would be noticeable. With fewer staff than a year ago, the Spectator needs to find funds to revitalize itself and produce the kinds of interactive informative web content that people are starting to expect from news organizations.

Original content costs money. That money must come from somewhere. It's a chicken/egg problem: which will come first, the high quality content needed to generate revenue or the revenue to produce high quality content?

Revenue opportunities

The metered paywall is part of that model and some form of payment from the news customer is a preferable revenue source than a continuing loss of editorial independence by an over-reliance on government and government-sector advertising.

A paywall could serve to fund thespec.com, but the metered paywall proposed by the Spectator is fatally flawed - it's asking for those who already finance the paper as print subscribers to dig deeper and pay an extra $2.95/month to use the website beyond the "free" 35 pageviews.

The paper needs to look at new revenue streams other than digging deeper into the pockets of their most loyal readers.

I've worked at the Spectator, including four months in-house on the website. I shattered their online traffic records with live coverage of Hamilton City Council debating the Pan Am Stadium last August, and I know there is a huge opportunity for the paper to monetize its online content.

41,192 people watched the online stream of Hamilton City Council on August 10th, but thespec.com did not serve one video ad that day. It was their biggest day of traffic and there was no ability to make money (beyond banner ads on thespec.com) from having nearly 10 percent of the local population viewing the stream.

A year later, as far as I know, thespec.com still doesn't have a video revenue plan.

Nor is thespec.com a go-to place for reference data, an evergreen revenue opportunity. The Chicago Tribune is a good example of reference information making money.

Convert Readers to Subscribers

Paywalls should convert web readers into subscribers, not vice-versa. The Spectator cannot afford to lose any print editions to the web - print is and will remain where the money is made in journalism.

Most newspaper paywalls reward print subscribers with "free" web access. In fact, U.S. newspapers are converting web readers into print subscribers by offering Sunday newspaper subscriptions at rates below web-only access.

Eventually, the daily print edition on dead trees will be a museum relic. The weekend paper will expand and flourish - converting young people to weekly subscribers is the future revenue model. thespec.com is missing this opportunity.

Paywall, what paywall?

Personally, I won't be affected by the paywall. I'm not trying to get around it intentionally; as a security feature, I don't allow unknown javascript to run in my browser.

The Press+ paywall is not bulletproof. The MinnPost provides a great summary of the shortcomings of the platform that allow readers with basic levels of web-savvy to bypass the paywall completely.

What's next?

It's entirely possible that more good-news surprises are in-store. This could be the beginning of a strong web strategy for thespec.com.

Today's implementation of the paywall is the first step in something. The paywall is not going away, this is Torstar's beachhead. The complaints of a few, or even many, will not result in a rollback of the project. Let's hope Torstar will invest the resources to make thespec.com worthy of being behind a paywall.

The news must be paid for and unless we're willing to give over our private information to thespec.com in the same way we give everything to Facebook, we're going to have to pay in hard currency.

For the non-subscribers to the Spectator, the time has come to pay if you want high quality content. $6.95/mth is not much to fund original journalism. Think of it as insurance against rampant government corruption.

The free ride must come to an end. If one does not want to pay for content, it is true there are alternative websites to go looking for news. If those alternatives can produce high-quality consistent journalism, then the new revenue model for journalism is found.


Disclosure: I've worked for the Hamilton Spectator as a freelance web editor during the past year. I'll likely continue to freelance with them in the future. The views expressed are solely my own and not influenced by the Spectator. The paper applies no pressure upon my writing. I've been critical of them in the past and they continue to hire me for freelance work.


This article was first published on Joey's website.

Joey Coleman covers Hamilton Civic Affairs.

Read more of his work at The Public Record, or follow him on Twitter @JoeyColeman.

36 Comments

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:08:50

I am convinced a better revenue model is needed for high quality journalism.

It's going to take a whole lot more than that. Hardest thing might be finding a MSM outlet with the will to create "quality journalism." That simply is not their purpose anymore.

I do agree with you on the flawed revenue model though.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:18:11

they should consider doing daily 'web exclusives' the way the Globe and Mail does. I would be more than happy to pay $6.95/month for all the regular content, plus extras that I know aren't in print.

Earlier this week when they rolled out the new design, I received a free copy at home with a notice that I'd be getting a free month trial. First time I've had a newspaper at my house in a few years, and I must say, I find reading it to be about a 4 minute exercise because I've already read it all on their website the previous day.

Adding some exclusive web content would add value to an online subscriber. For those not online who prefer to get the hard copy at their doorstep, allow them to access that same content for free, but charge them $2.95 to get the entire web experience with all the extras.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-09-14 12:18:50

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:46:08

I'd rather pay Ryan to compile my news.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 14, 2011 at 13:08:35 in reply to Comment 69606

I'd rather pay Ryan to compile my news.

I can't help but complete this image...

...by imagining him making you breakfast, preparing your lunch...and putting a Band-Aid on a boo-boo.

Thanks for the chuckle.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-09-14 13:57:51

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 21:22:04 in reply to Comment 69609

You forgot backrubs. I bet he gives a mean massage.

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By narf (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:58:05

On the plus side, this should limit the number of braindead comments. I suspect it's that type of user, who habitually flips through every article looking for an open comment section that is consuming a disproportionate amount of resources.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 14, 2011 at 13:50:50

It seems like charging dead-tree-news subscribers to pay for the website is utter business suicide.

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By Luftballons (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 14:18:00 in reply to Comment 69612

Maybe the paper is taking point for the parent corporation?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhGIFLWadEU

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted September 14, 2011 at 17:54:34

Would I pay seven bucks a month for The Hamilton Spectator online? Possibly, but not likely in its current state although theSpec.com has come a long way in the past couple of years at making their Internet news portal more engaging; We can now leave an un-moderated comment to most stories which appear online as opposed to commenting only on stories in the SpecThread or Hallmark's blogs. Unfortunately however, as narf pointed out, many of the comments are immature, lackluster and oftentimes offensive.

Jason's suggestion of adding web exclusives is a great idea and certainly possible with the manpower and resources of a news organization such as the Hamilton Spectator. Just to give a recent example; I was at the Sept. 13, 2011 General Issues Committee Special Meeting with mystoneycreek and made some observations of our local media in action. I paid very close attention to CHCH and theSpec crews covering the event. These were the only two representatives of our local media present that I could recognize.

CHCH sent Lisa Hepfner and a cameraman while theSpec team was composed of Andrew Dreschel, Matthew Van Dongen and photographer Gary Yokoyama.

The CHCH crew in their thrift store apparel spent most of their time texting, browsing freshly inked skin on facebook, struggled to maintain their balance during the presentations and left early. TheSpec crew on the other hand, were all dressed for the occasion and suffered none of the aforementioned distractions. Each member of theSpec team were focused on their individual duties, acted professionally and were very attentive during the presentations as they took notes and remained seated for the entire duration.

After all was said and done we must also judge the quality of the finished product from each of these two news organizations coverage of the same event and bear in mind, most of us already pay our cable providers to watch CHCH on TV nowadays.

CHCH
theSpec 1
theSpec 2

If I had to make a choice between the two sources of information, I would gladly cancel my cable subscription because IMHO, The Hamilton Spectator could (with a little more work on web exclusives) easily replace the boob-toob news.

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2011-09-14 17:55:02

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 18:12:59

"For the non-subscribers to the Spectator, the time has come to pay if you want high quality content."

Really Joey... you were not aware of how many Spec jokes this line sets up.

On the Spec hard copy re-design, it's the same crap in a fancier low flush toilet.

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2011-09-14 18:13:18

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By whatev (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 20:20:21

"We currently have more traffic than we can monetize through advertising and other strategies, such as migration to verticals."

I understand that they aren't making enough money from their ads, but WTF is a "vertical", how do you migrate someone to it, and how do you make money from it?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 01:37:19

Took me a while to hit the paywall, but rest assured, you can beat it with two mouse clicks.

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By Bobby1 (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 08:41:18

I also read The Spec for local news ! Andy Dreschel & Emmily are their only real reporters & commentors and they are good! Unfortunately for The Spec,The Mayor & Councillors or senior staff won't comment directly to The Spec so we seldom hear their indepth views on important City issues! Due to lack of reporters,the local news could really be printed in a small community size newspaper! Hamilton is a very political town and I believe readers are very interest in City issues like Stadium,Veldrome,McMaster,polluted properties,City wasted spending,HECFI,municipal public service productivity,follow up on exposed City issues! An example,why has no one asked how Mayor Bratina's $10,000 UW contribution that violated City policy was resolved? That was a huge story at the time,then handed to staff to look at it,then nothing! Few if any questions on how is HECFI debt load being resolved since Council took control? Maybe they need good freelance reporters paid by stories printed? In the end,each reader will need to decide if $83.00/year is worth it! I'm going to wait and observe the fall out first! By the way,RTH is a great source of information and writing!

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By arienc (registered) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 09:49:34

In a time period where individuals are just as likely to get local news from social networks, blogs like RTH and other sources that do not charge for information, print media's ability to leverage "news" into revenue is going to continue to be difficult. The big money for newspapers is this type of environment where information is ubituitous, is in archives, indexing and storage.

Many newspapers maintain vast archives of old papers on microfiche and film.

With the cost of storage and availability of digitization services, this represents a massive revenue opportunity for traditional newspaper publishers who have this content and can make it available.

Get those old articles digitized and hooked up to Google so that searches will dig up links to articles, and put anything older than a month behind a paywall, where people have a choice betwen unfettered access with copy privileges (for research / citation only - not redistribution) at $6.95/month, and access to single articles (without ability to copy from article) for a small payment of say a dollar each.

Comment edited by arienc on 2011-09-15 09:50:14

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 11:26:42

I would happily pay for it if I felt it was a decent site. I find the writing poor, peppered with errors, and the comments ruin the minimal enjoyment the article may provided. I'll probably pay to support them initially, but if nothing changes... CBC would at least provide an alternative if they came to town.

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By Downtown Downer (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 17:22:10

I don't think I pay for anything on the internet. With wi-fi connections I can go to the library and get internet for free without even buying a coffee. OpenFile Hamilton has a vast coverage network. For print I find reading Ubancity much more enjoyable for civic issues.

I think the spec is going to find not many takers for this, especially when there are other free big newspapers. Does anyone under fifty really like a daily subscription? No. Paper printing is dying out. Thirty years ago it began its downward slide with computers and huge databases, now with expanded wi-fi and other free sources the main stream just can't control info like before.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 17:28:48

I like the Spectator, I think it's a high quality publication. I subscribe to the print edition and look forward to the op-ed pages every day. As a print subscriber, I would appreciate the ability to view the online content without a paywall, but I think I'll generally be within the 35 pageviews/month limit, since I read the print edition. The only problem will likely arise when I'm researching something, at which point, I end up on thespec.com pretty frequently.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 17:33:50 in reply to Comment 69691

If you have an HPL membership, you can access all the Spectator archives back to 1991.

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 08:41:02

I read The Spec online every day, usually going to the site several times a day. Though I love the smaller local blog sites, reading The Spec keeps me in touch with broader issues and the mainstream thinking (especially in those often-misinformed or badly-written letters to the editor!). I would gladly pay to read The Spec online because I appreciate it, though I do agree that there could be more coverage of local politics, and more critical coverage of local issues. There are some features that are available on the web version only, mainly photos and videos.

Like Sean, we are currently receiving the print edition for 4 weeks on a "free trial" basis. I had forgotten how many ads come bundled into it -- so much paper! So at least half of what is delivered goes straight to the blue box, including the sections I don't read. It just seems so wasteful.

So I have no real desire to obtain a subscription to the print edition but will not mind supporting The Spec by paying for online access.

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 09:21:15

Just came across an article about how Winnipeg Free Press making the most of its urban location to set up a cafe and public space for meetings and live chats, bringing together some recent themes from RTH articles (town hall meetings, citizen input, changing ways of accessing information). It was the first newspaper in Canada to launch a news cafe.

The episode also underscores the paper’s changing role as it tries to push some of its newsroom presence out of its suburban office building and into the public, physical realm of its downtown cafe. It’s showing the public how the sausage is made, using more than just the online tools favored by many news organizations.

Article can be found at http://bit.ly/mPnHwz

Comment edited by BeulahAve on 2011-09-16 09:23:10

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 12:46:59 in reply to Comment 69722

You know, I was just thinking today about the all the loss of synergies due to The Spec's Frid St. location. Hopefully as the MIP is developed the increased connectivity will help knit the Spec building into it's city, but I was thinking wouldn't it be great if the Spec could have some kind of physical presence downtown. What a great thing a cafe/public space like you describe would be. Lister block anyone?

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2011 at 11:46:45 in reply to Comment 69722

The Freep is one of the last great local papers left in Canada. I'm trying my best to get hired by them.

Their coverage of local live events is second to none, I'm often better informed about Winnipeg than Hamilton because I read the Freep online each day.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 12:40:46 in reply to Comment 69742

No Joey don't go! Stay here and turn the Spec into the Freep!

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted September 17, 2011 at 10:48:30 in reply to Comment 69748

Yes, Joey, don't leave, you are making many contributions in the Hammer at a critical time.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 12:48:00 in reply to Comment 69748

Or run for office. I'm good either way.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2011 at 19:38:59

Arianna Huffington In Canada - "Huffington Post Founder Says Canadian Media Need To Focus On Online... during her address to an annual convention of Quebec media firms."

"Huffington, who has carved out a significant place as an opinion-shaper in the United States, held forth at length on how she started her Huffington Post site in 2005 and grew it to the point where it is now expanding worldwide. She continues to play a leading role, despite selling the organization for US$315 million to AOL. After launching Huffington Post Canada earlier this year, she went on to start a UK version. Others are planned for Spain, Brazil, France and even Quebec."

Some hilarious Canadian comments:

"You know I like her but I'd rather she kept out of Canadian affairs. We do NOT want our Media further "Americani­zed" ~ gx5000

"Arianna, as usual you are a true American meddling in others affairs. It is about time, one would think, you Americans learned a good lesson. Greed it is. Just mind your business." ~ Siva Nathan

"She was invited to make a speech you ignoramus." ~ JackHoffman

"Now we get to see an "American'­s view of Canadian News"... joy." ~ gx5000

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-09-16 19:40:41

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 17, 2011 at 00:54:19

I notice that Bob Bratina has a cable access show on Cable14. I guess that solves all the issues with needing to contact the mayor and all this town hall nonsense. So who produces and screens the calls anyway? Oh boy. Oh gee.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted September 17, 2011 at 21:23:15

Just paid my "fare" to get online with The Spec.

They're a business, so I understand why they are doing it. I generally read their news more than anyone else's, and usually in addition to that of other sites. It's not perfect, but I appreciate what they have to say more than The Star (whose pages I also peruse online) and not just because I live in The Spec's market area. CHML gives you sound bites and little more. CHCH I choose for televised news. But the depth and breadth The Spec provides to me is something I value. I do not have a subscription to the paper version. I used to love reading through it, from the front page of the first section to the back of the last one, but these days I find the online edition sufficient and quite convenient (especially during my GO train commute!)

So personally speaking, I have no problem with paying. For an average of 26 days of news posted there in a given month, at $6.95 + tax per month = about 30 cents. One quarter + one nickel per day. Is that value for money? What else could we get for that?

Maybe the newspaper should reconsider what they charge their regular subscribers for online content, but for those of use whose sole connection is over the internet, I actually wonder why we haven't been asked to pay for that sooner.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2011 at 13:26:55

Interesting comments by Tim O'Reilly on the NY Times paywall:

whatever business model you want to adopt, it's essential to get good at it. If you're straddling two business models [ad-supported and subscription], it's even more important.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted September 19, 2011 at 21:11:02 in reply to Comment 69856

The Spec has yet to define this on their subscriptions page. Currently, they still have this option: "ELECTRONIC-ONLY EDITION* Enjoy unlimited access to the electronic online edition for one low price! $5.00 per month (Easy Payment Plan)"

I assume this refers to being able to view PDFs?

There may also be a loophole with mobile devices - I have yet to reach my free "limit" on my handheld, though I'm sure I have. And if I do, will I be able to "log in" to show I have paid from my home computer? There is no clear option for that on their website.

It's still early days, but "get good at it" indeed.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2011-09-19 21:22:43

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:42:46 in reply to Comment 69880

If the Spec insists on doing a paywall, they should at a minimum not double-charge people who have a print subscription. I get the Spec every day and I enjoy reading it (in fact, I'd argue that it has gotten steadily and incrementally better over the past couple of years), but I won't take kindly to paying twice for the same content, given that their marginal distribution costs for the web edition are negligible.

The best thing they can do with that clunky PDF-with-a-page-turner web version of their print edition is to put it gently out of its misery and speak no more of it.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:11:47 in reply to Comment 69902

I cancelled my subscription in a fit of pique after their gutless 'endorsement' of Harper in the federal election, but my hubby missed it so when they called recently with a 5 day for the price of 3 offer, I decided to go for it (the fact that I have also noticed an incremental improvement sweetened the deal).

I am some pissed that they neglected to mention they were about to start charging subscribers for online access. I feel like I was duped. They're lucky I'm too busy posting comments here to fire off an indignant email to customer service.

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:04:22

It's funny when they first announced that they were going to go to the paywall they asked for comments. I, being who I am expressed some honest opinions with regards to the paywall. Now it seems they have banned me, which is no big deal.

But what they also did was ban the nicknames of the other people who live with me which is no way to encourage loyalty amongst your customers. The other people in the house can't be bothered and will get their news and make their views be known elsewhere. So in trying to exclude me they have lost two potential viewers that their advertisers will not be exposed to. Not a good way to do business.

Being the persistant person that I am, I have since reregistered under multiple other names using multiple IP addresses, something I have never had to do anywhere else. I use this same nic on every site I go to. I had no other identities before this.

They shouldn't have ask for comments if they couldn't handle honest opinions.

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By Yvh1 (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2011 at 19:31:38

In this day and age of internet easy access why would they charge us to read their paper Bad move on the Specs part to garner subscribers . I now have one less newspaper bookmark on my computer

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By svenpo (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2012 at 23:48:37

Christ, just select your article then stop the page from loading before the wall comes up. I have been reading articles on their site ever since they put it up.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 08, 2012 at 09:56:20 in reply to Comment 79603

yeah, but then you can't see the comments which are half the fun. ;)

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