First Anniversary of the OC Register Dearthwatch: How Did the Experiment Go?

Dearthwatch decline graphic

It’s been a long time since I’ve done an OC Register Dearthwatch, which chronicles the state of the Register‘s online readership in the wake of their erecting their toughest-in-the-industry paywall.  But April 2 is the first anniversary of when the Wonderwall went up, so it’s time to dig in and do the research one more time.  (I’d like to say one last time — but we’ll probably want to do more of these at some points, and no one else has stepped forward to take over this franchise.  Hint.)

I had planned to put this off until next weekend — but since Gustavo recently revealed the secret that the paywall has recently been springing more holes than a Kris Murray explanation of why an Anaheim boondoggle is sound public policy, I figure that I had better submit my annual report before the results change.  And here those results are:

Dearthwatch - 20140328

The Register ends Year One of its experiment at close to its overall low.  It started out as roughly the 6000th most popular website in the know universe; now it has dropped below 9500th place.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the paywall was a bad business decision; it just means that other revenue growth would have had to compensate to make up for a stark (and predictable) decline in online readers.  Whether that happened or not is something that the Register presumably knows; I don’t.

What this chart does tell us, though, is a little about what explanations for the drop do and don’t make sense — and more than a little who probably profited from the Register‘s decision.

First of all, this was not an inevitable drop.  The Los Angeles Times has shown considerable improvement over the past year — and climbing from #546 to #420 probably means picking up a huge number of eyeballs.  The Register isn’t alone among “top 10,000” papers in showing this sort of decline — the Sacramento Bee has also suffered — but the relative success (recently undercut) of the San Diego Union-Tribune online seems to offer a good sense of where the Register might have been by now — perhaps near breaking into the top 5000.

Wherever the Register’s online readers went, it wasn’t to newspapers (other than the Times) outside of the county.  The flagship papers in Riverside, San Bernardino, the San Gabriel Valley, and Long Beach all showed declines.  Long Beach’s Press-Telegram may have been hurt by the Register’s competition there — almost half of its decline came this past quarter — and of course others have been linked to the Orange Lady in the financial gossip columns.

Who has captured the Register’s online readers?  The most obvious beneficiaries have been online publications here in Orange County.  The OC Weekly has had a great year online, hurtling past 40% of the obstacles between them and Google and Facebook.  The Daily Pilot moved past 25% of its competition; the Voice of OC did the same, definitively breaking away from the “online only” pack, of which the Orange Juice Blog is its closest competitor among those listed.  The big winner by percentage is the Huntington Beach Independent, which started the year behind OJB and ended it within shouting distance of the Voice.  And we had a pretty decent year ourselves.

My hypothesis from last summer was that many more people would start using the websites of electronic news media, for which the website is a way of luring people in to enjoy the moneymaking part of the product.  News on that front is mixed: KFI’s ranking is stagnant, but both the websites for NPR affiliate KPCC and NBC4 showed increases similar to that of the Weekly.  In fact, KPCC’s “SCPR” site (Southern California Public Radio) is now virtually tied with the Weekly, which is an interesting social commentary, although I’m not sure what it says.  (Perhaps Gustavo will come by and explain that one to us.  I expect it will be along the lines of “It’s the quality, pendejos!”)

Among our listed political blogosphere competitors, Pedroza has one up and one down, but his numbers are so volatile that I suspect it has to do with what he’s advertising in a given month, or maybe some accounting exercises in allocating hits.  (He knows that stuff way better than Vern or I do.)  Liberal OC and OC Political have stagnated.  Cunningham’s Anaheim blogstrosity, not shown here, had briefly rallied from being ranked jat 3.94 million to 3.1 million — to now being down to 3.993 million.  (Why?  It’s the quality, pendejo!)

As I said when I started this exercise, my interest doesn’t come from an animus against the Register.  Journalism is — or should be — a noble calling, and with business hurting I understand why they’d want to try something new.  Trying to extract wealth out of Orange County’s elites at the expense of the public’s ability to follow the news was not a dumb idea, regardless of its unfortunate social policy implications — it just may not have worked.

In this case, unless there’s some really great news about subscription revenue — and the Orange Lady’s recent layoffs hint that there isn’t — it doesn’t seem to have worked.  Worst, once one drops from #6000 to nearly #10,000, it’s not clear that one can easily recapture that ground.  And that is bad for Orange County journalism.

On the other hand, it seems to have been good for the Daily Pilot, the Independent, the Weekly, and the Voice — and maybe even for us.  I wonder if subscription revenue for the first two of those has slipped, as more people read their stories online?  If it hasn’t — then that suggests that the Register’s experiment may have been flawed in its very design.

When will the next Dearthwatch be?  I’m pretty tired of doing it, so that will depend on who’d like to take it over.  I’m glad that we started keeping track, though, because the last year’s figures tell a pretty interesting story.

Update, March 29:  It is with sheepish pleasure that I announce that OJB is not currently the top local OC political news blog  after all!  After a huge surge in readers over the past three months, that honor now goes to Geoff “The PotStirrer” West and Costa Mesa’s A Bubbling Cauldron, which over the past three months has moved from a rank of around 1,000,000 to its current enviable #430,072.  Because I didn’t include it on the chart a year ago (when I think I recall its numbers so under-representing its substantive influence that I didn’t want to belittle it by including them), when I planned on tracking sites’ progress over the past year, I think that it would be confusing to add it now — especially because I don’t even expect to continue doing these more than occasionally if even that — but I’m happy to acknowledge Geoff’s well-deserved success!

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)