Can local news be saved by going behind a paywall?  We might not have long to find out, says Graham Smith

By Matt Abbott | 12th Jan 2017

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We invited Graham Smith, ex Wadebridge and Padstow reporter for Trinity Mirror’s Cornish Guardian to share his views on his new pay-wall model for local news publication Cornwall Reports.

“I launched the Cornwall Reports local news website just before Christmas, aiming to provide a comprehensive service without adverts, surveys or other forms of intrusive data acquisition.

“Readers will instead be asked to subscribe.  An annual £30 membership works out at only 8 pence per day – compared with 70 pence per day for the Trinity Mirror daily local newspaper The Western Morning News.  The Cornwall Reports site will be updated several times throughout the day.

“Backed by a £3,000 Crowdfunding appeal to cover launch costs, Cornwall Reports is seeking to exploit a gap in the market created by Trinity’s closure of its Cornish Guardian, West Briton and Cornishman local news websites.  Trinity replaced these sites with its controversial CornwallLive product, in which “digital content” has largely replaced local news.

“In the past few weeks I have worked harder than at any time in the previous 30 years.  I am now 61.  I don’t recommend it: my working day starts at 5am and often continues until after 10pm.  It is not sustainable in its present form, but if the subs roll in then I will be looking to hire as soon as possible.

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“I began my career on the Cambridge Evening News in 1976 and later spent decades in regional television.  I’ve been based in Cornwall since 1980.  I’d been a Cornish Guardian reporter since 2014 but was unhappy at the new editorial policies introduced to CornwallLive.  I launched Cornwall Reports when Trinity Mirror sacked me for “failing to share the company’s aims and values.”

“There is a simple beauty to the hard paywall model: you get what you pay for.  Once upon a time, I like to think, people bought newspapers to read the news.  There was a simple transaction.  Now, with a growing acceptance of paying for goods and services online, Cornwall Reports might be able to re-invent the wheel (the wheel was an incredibly useful invention.)

“The population of Cornwall is 570,000.  The electorate is only 450,000.  Let’s assume that only 20% is sufficiently engaged to vote in a parish council by-election on a rainy Thursday night.  That’s still 90,000 people.  That’s my target market.  I need only 1,000 subscribers to earn significantly more than Trinity Mirror ever paid me.

“Another part of my premise is that modern technology makes possible things which were previously undreamed of: I could never launch my own newspaper without a printing press and a distribution system.  But I do have fibre broadband, and a WordPress website which has cost me nothing at all to develop – except hours of midnight oil while I tried to learn how to use it.

“I am also very, very experienced at what I do.  And while this might also be a bad thing,  just at the moment my contacts are working overtime to supply me with cracking stories.  The support and encouragement of friends and media colleagues is also a great strength.

“I can see that to some, the Cornwall Reports project might look like some crazed old fool, living on the edge of Bodmin Moor, who has failed to realise that the war was lost some years ago.  I shout “local news matters” and my former bosses just giggle.

“But if Cornwall Reports is still going by the end of March, it will be because the paywall model is working. 

“And just imagine what might happen if every Trinity Mirror journalist also then decides that local news matters.”

Graham was sacked  from the Cornish Guardian in December for serious misconduct and, according to Press Gazette, making no secret of his plan to create a rival website.

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