The Union Leader posts a web banner this morning announcing that they will publish their three influential political columns, John DiStaso's "Granite Status", Scott Brooks' "City Hall", and Tom Fahey's "Under the State House Dome" only in their print edition from now on. Political junkies will no longer be able to read the must-read columns online Thursday and Sunday mornings, and blogs as this one will no longer be able to link to interesting tidbits from the columns.
The move is prompted by the stunning circulation drop seen by every major newspaper in the country. First, Craigslist took their classified ad revenue, and then the Internet took their readers. Newspapers have responded by posting their content online, but reading a story on your computer screen doesn't get you to read the expensive print ads purchased by the newspaper's advertisers. In order to continue charging for ad space, newspapers like the Union Leader need people to get the print edition delivered to their home, or pick up a piece of dead tree on the gas station on the way to work.
Taking its most valuable content offline is a risky move for New Hampshire's largest and most influential newspaper. By walling off its political coverage from the Internet, the Union Leader risks becoming irrelevant in the modern political climate. The influence of a political column isn't just on those who read it regularly. It is from sharing and spreading that information far and wide in order to set the convention wisdom within the political world.
Distaso's column, easily the most powerful political real estate in New Hampshire, now becomes less so because it will be so much harder to share his stories across the state and beyond. His column can no longer to linked to in a campaign newsletter or emailed to immediately to potential donors across the country. If a political story isn't on the Internet, it won't show up in search engine results or be part of the archive of political memory. A lot more people use Google than Lexis-Nexis.
By telling its audience that political news will no longer be available at UnionLeader.com, the paper also risks driving its best sources to other journalist. DiStaso, Fahey, and Brooks are fine reporters, but every political reporter relies extensively on tips and leads sent in by campaigns and their supporters. As a press secretary and a candidate, I often gave leads to John in hopes of making it into his column on Thursday morning. Now, it might make more sense to call Kevin Landrigan in hopes of making his Sunday column in the Nashua Telegraph. The paper's circulation might be smaller, but being able to link to it makes it a lot easier to distribute it far and wide.
The Union Leader hopes that the political influence of its columnists is too large for New Hampshire's political class to ignore. They will be forced to either pick the paper in the morning, or subscribe to the e-edition of the Union Leader, an online reproduction of the print edition available for $1.50 per week or $59.99 per year. But the Wall Street Journal and New York Times both found out that their readers wouldn't pay a premium to read their opinion pages, and dropped their subscription walls. We'll see if the Union Leader can't buck that trend.