Will Haligonians open their wallets for Tim Bousquet’s paywalled news site?
Award-winning journalist Tim Bousquet launched the Halifax Examiner, a self-described “independent, adversarial” website that is advertisement-free and behind a paywall. Will subscribers sign up?
By Geoff Davies
Tim Bousquet took a bold leap a few months back—quitting one of Halifax’s most prominent media gigs to launch a new venture, and the industry started buzzing.
Bousquet is a decorated investigative reporter, most recently renowned for effectively bringing down then Halifax mayor Peter Kelly with an 11-month investigation into a mishandled will. His acerbic humour has won him thousands of followers, on- and off-line.
His new venture, The Halifax Examiner, launched today and immediately, Bousquet’s self-described “independent, adversarial news site” was hit with an onslaught of web traffic. In the minutes following Bousquet’s announcement of the June 18 launch, the site was swamped with 508 error messages—there wasn’t enough bandwidth for all the visitors.
“I don’t think anyone could get on at all,” Bousquet said.
The new solo venture will demand gallons of Bousquet’s blood, guts and energy, and offer none of the security of the news editor position at The Coast, the alt-weekly he left at the end of March after seven years in the role.
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“Sure, but I don’t want to be secure. I want to have to work … I think security for a journalist leads to lazy work, ultimately. And, frankly, some of my work was getting quite lazy,” said the outspoken journalist, columnist and tweep-about-town.
Now he’s counting on his dedicated followers to keep him doing what he does best—local politics, long-term investigations and media analysis.
Their dollars are the only thing supporting his work. Keeping the site advertising-free is central to his philosophy—so as to preserve independence, Bousquet said, and fight the trend he sees of newsrooms and ad departments becoming worringly close.
“If I offend some business or some business class, screw ’em, you know?” Bousquet said. “I’m going to be challenging a lot of the powers-that-be in this town in ways that I don’t think other media do.”
Starting his own news outfit is something Bousquet said he’s thought about ever since he did it the last time, as the lone force for five years behind The Chico Examiner, covering the Northern California city of the same name until 2002.
“Now I feel like I’ve come full circle, ready to do my own thing again,” Bousquet said.
“That word ‘examiner’, I love the word. Because I’m not a ‘chronicle’, I’m not just chronicling. It’s not a ‘report’, I’m not just reporting. There’s a verb in there.”
A subscription costs $10 a month, half of that for students and low-income earners, and a $20 rate for businesses. Those who want to do more to support the cause can choose a $25 monthly “sustainer subscription” or a one-time $500 “founder contribution” to help him cover the costs of starting this new business
“We’ve had a long time now when everything was supposed to be free, and you get what you pay for. You get cat videos and porn, it’s free.
“If you want quality, you gotta pay for it. I don’t think I’m asking a lot from people. You know, a couple beers. A trip to the coffee shop,” he said.
Paywalls in Canada outpacing other markets
Bousquet’s bold move sits at the intersection of several theories surrounding paid-for online content and questions about what people will pay for and why.
With his gambit, Bousquet is aligning himself with a widespread Canadian trend. Last year, J-Source informally surveyed 95 daily newspapers in the country and found that Canadian media outlets were greatly outpacing other national newspaper markets in the move toward paywalls.
Kelly Toughill, director of the University of King’s College School of Journalism, in Halifax, and J-Source’s business of journalism editor, wrote that about 80 per cent of Canadian dailies employed paywalls, double the rate in the U.S.
Toughill, whose research encompasses entrepreneurial journalism and paywall-based ventures, explained in an interview why the traditional business model “pretty much completely collapsed” when news outlets tried to export it directly to online.
“Advertisers don’t need someone to assemble an audience the way that they did before. And if they do want somebody to assemble an audience they want niche audiences, they don’t want mass media,” Toughill said.
In fact, Bousquet’s decision to eschew advertising altogether may be as practical as it is ideological. “It’s very, very, very difficult to support a news operation online with advertising,” Toughill said. But, driven by necessity as much as anything, readers are beginning to accept—grudgingly, perhaps—the need to pay for quality content, especially in the local sphere, she said.
“If I want to find out about an earthquake in Sumatra, I can do that without paying, but if I want to find out about the mayoral race … it’s getting difficult to get that information without paying for it.”
What will readers pay for?
Entrepreneurial journalists like Bousquet also have other assets to leverage.
“Tim’s site will be a really, really interesting launch because he’s such a well-known entity in this community already,” Toughill said. “He’ll hate this word, but he’s got a brand.”
And part of Bousquet’s brand is his personality, his attitude. These are things his legion of followers—he is one of the most-followed Twitter users in Halifax—can’t get anywhere else. Unique content like that, Toughill and others agreed, is the key to subscription-based success—just as it was for what she calls one of the very first successful paywall models, Halifax’s AllNovaScotia.com.
“People want to know specific things about specific places or specific industries or specific people,” said Kevin Cox, AllNovaScotia’s managing editor from 2005 to 2011, crediting unique content for the site’s success.
A 25-year veteran of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, as well as a King’s journalism instructor, Cox laments that the industry ever gave the news away for free. “If we had charged 20 years ago, if we had started that way, we’d never be in the mess we’re in now in the mainstream media, because people would have become attuned to paying for news as a commodity,” he said.
He recalled being a lone dissenter to this consensus among media colleagues: “I used an old farm expression, I said: ‘my dad always taught me, if a man gives away the cow, he’s telling you what the milk is worth.’”
Bousquet—with his expertise in local politics—could have an added advantage, simply because of the nature of the Maritime city he covers.
“This is a tightknit community that likes to talk to and with itself,” Cox said.
And when it comes to politics, Nova Scotians are especially engaged. “Government here plays a much larger role in our lives than it does other places. A lot of people work there or derive some of their income from there, and a lot depends on what government contracts are being awarded,” Cox said.
It also has to do with this city’s “intensely personal” society: “Like, you walk down downtown Halifax you’re probably going to meet five or six MLAs when the house is sitting.”
David Bentley, Cox’s colleague and AllNovaScotia’s founder, offered a thought, as well as a list of his own media ventures, some that succeeded—including the Halifax Daily News and Frank Magazine—and several that didn’t.
“The thing that I always found is that things don’t turn out as you anticipate they might,” he said. You’ve got to keep your expenses down, drag out your longevity, and as for re-evaluation: “I think you’re thinking about it every 10 seconds.”
Geoff Davies is a writer, reporter and editor based in Halifax, where he is a Master of Journalism candidate at the University of King's College. Follow him on Twitter @gffdvs.
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