Thursday, December 12, 2013

Press Releases: Invisible Paywall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Lewiston Sun Journal’s online paywall launched last week, and nobody really noticed. It’s a new experiment in both structure and sales-pitch for converting formerly non-paying web readers into customers with open wallets.
Many papers around the country (as big as the New York Times and as small as theEllsworth American) have variations on paywalls, and more are likely coming; the Press Herald’s parent company has said it’s planning one too. As on many sites, Sun Journal readers don’t have to have pay to see every story. That’s good because many of the stories occupying front-page real estate on are freely available elsewhere online, from their actual sources: the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.
But the stuff that is behind the paywall bears headlines like this one Monday: “Lewiston Councilors-Elect to Meet Tuesday.” If you think that headline is bad, you haven’t read the 218-word snoozer by Scott Taylor. It’s unclear why anyone would pay to read a tiny daily-news brief.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. While it is marked with a key icon to show that it’s a “premium article,” non-subscribers can read 10 such stories every 30 days. After that, it costs as little as $2.99 per week.
That doesn’t sound like a bad deal, and it actually isn’t when you factor in the Sun Journal’s creative assembly of a larger package. The weekly newspapers the Sun Journal owns have been pillars in their communities, bolstering the daily; six of those (theNorway Advertiser Democrat, the Bethel Citizen, the Franklin Journal, the Livermore Falls Advertiser, the Rumford Falls Times, and the Rangeley Highlander) are included in the paywall (though not the Forecaster papers, which still have a free site).
In fact, it’s downright cheap: Unlimited online-only access to all the papers costs $2.99 a week. If you want online access only to the Sun Journal, that costs $4.59 a week — which includes your choice of print delivery (every day, weekend, or Sunday-only) as well. The full-price $4.99 a week only comes into play if you want full online access to all the papers, plus Sun Journal delivery, plus one weekly print publication.
Cleverly, there’s no way to get just the weekly papers — nor even just one weekly — as part of an online package. Showing additional attention to detail, a number of the stories on the SJ front page link to weeklies’ stories; someone with the SJ-only deal will quickly get frustrated trying to click through, and will likely up their subscription by 40 cents a week.
The benefit of that is a boost not to the numbers of the SJ’s circulation, which may be in the low 20,000s, and certainly is no higher than 31,000, according to recent self-reported statistics. Rather, it boosts the circulation of the weeklies by giving people access to all six for less than the price of any one. That strengthens the smaller papers’ appeal to advertisers, unless they see through this numbers game.
Speaking of which, there’s a numbers game being played on the public too. The Sun Journal is calling this paywall “membership.” In a November 10 note to readers explaining the upcoming change, executive editor Rex Rhoades spent a good amount of space extolling its virtues and benefits, the first and most prominent of which is financial: “most subscribers will join a membership program offering extra discounts and benefits that will more than cover the cost of your subscription.”
Specifically, subscribers will be entered in monthly drawings for free tickets to various local events: “Portland Sea Dogs, Portland Pirates, Oxford Plains [Speedway], local arts shows, hot air balloon rides, golf, ski, concerts and more” says the online description. They’ll also get “exclusive coupon deals . . . offered by local businesses on a weekly basis.” In boldface comes the real pitch: “The total value of the deals offered . . . will exceed the cost of your membership package.”
Which is the final experiment. The Sun Journal is asking its readers to pay to get the news, and then promising them they’ll get their money back in savings that are only available to paying customers. The quality of those deals — and the frequency with which people actually take them — will determine whether this marketing pitch works. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Use your mind: A meditation for newcomers to buying art

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Buying art can be intimidating. It can involve Galleries and Dealers and Other Important People whose Opinions Matter. Or it can just be you (and perhaps a loved one) seeing something you like and buying it. Which is much simpler. But still, it’s an emotional and psychological process with a few important things to think about.
In fact, art buying is — or can be — a lot like meditation. For starters, it’s best to approach it with a relaxed body and mind.
Then you need to throw away all conventions and social norms. Buying art is a very personal thing, and it’s not up to anybody else to decide it for you. Beauty is, as the ancient adage goes, in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t like a piece of art, it doesn’t matter if it’s a piece beloved by The Art World or Culture In General, or even if it’s a masterpiece by Picasso or Calder. Similarly, if you like a piece of art, what it “looks like” or depicts, or what someone else sees in it, doesn’t matter a whit. You need to connect with the art you’re going to buy in some sort of important emotional way. What that is, and what that feels like, is also up to you.
But you should want to look at it every day, forever. Unlike partners or children or pets, it won’t change itself — only your meaning for it can. But just like partners and children and pets, it can represent — and serve as a constant reminder of — a moment, or a feeling, or a belief, that lasts a lifetime. (Fortunately, medical research has shown that viewing art activates parts of the brain called the “reward circuit,” bringing pleasure and encouraging the person to view more art. So the more you look at art, the more you’ll want to look at art. Accompanying this piece are some works I’ve purchased and enjoy looking at daily.)
Next, observe what’s in front of you. This doesn’t necessarily take a long time. It can certainly involve books and online research (see sidebar, “Online Galleries”), but the best way to experience art — whether you’re buying or not — is in person. Portland makes this process extremely easy, and free: On First Fridays, find a few galleries you visit every time, and then mix in a few other new ones each month. Walk in, look around — make sure you put your eyes on every item there — and see what happens. If you like something, look at it longer. If you don’t see anything that just plain grabs you, thank the gallery owner and leave.
Fourth, reflect on yourself. If you’re drawn to a piece of art (sorry for the bad pun), there’s a reason. You don’t have to know or articulate the reason, but you do need to acknowledge it exists, and that its existence is valid and meaningful.
Fifth, let it go. Once you’ve had a good look at a piece of art, from many angles, walk away. Go look at some other art (again, First Friday is fantastic for this). If you find yourself still thinking about that one piece, observe that, and perhaps indulge that feeling’s persistence by going back to take another look. If you don’t want to expend the effort to even do that, then you don’t really want to buy the work, do you?
Making sureNow, just like in meditation, you will at times during your art search come across items that you really feel are important to revisit, to reconsider, to examine. When those arise, and they will, you can move to the second phase of purchasing art: Not actually buying it.
It’s important to do this properly. The initial not-buying-art step happens only in your imagination. Envision yourself without this piece of art. Is anything missing? Is your life less without it? If the answers to those questions are “No” and “No,” then go ahead and don’t actually buy the art.
If, however, you do think that this art truly has something to bring to your life, that this particular work could improve your existence, then you need to take the next step. Which is not (yet) buying the art.
Think about whether this piece is really the ultimate expression of what you’re looking for and feeling. If it is, then buy it (and skip to the “Spending The Money” section below). But if not, you may have found not the work you’ll end up buying, but a clue to locating that piece.
So look at the sticker nearby (or the information sheet, or the exhibit catalog) and note the artist’s name. (Do not look at the price. It doesn’t matter — yet.) Then either find more work by that person, or simply Google them and get in touch. Contacting the artist is actually an important step a lot of art buyers skip, ignore, or don’t even know is possible. But it can be useful for two reasons: You may find, among that
artist’s other pieces, a work you actually like better than the one you’ve spotted; and you’ll meet a person you can start to connect with as human beings.
Artists love knowing who has their art, why the people bought it, and what its meaning is for them. And it’s super-fun to look at a work in your home and know you’ve shaken the hand that created it.
Eventually, following this process, you’ll both meet a lot of artists and find works you want to have in your home. When that moment comes, you’ll know. And then it’s time to open your wallet.
Spending the moneyNow you can look at the price. You’ll have one of two reactions: relief or panic. If it’s relief, then great — you’re all set. Settle up and head home with your new treasure. You needn’t necessarily frame it, but if you do, see the sidebar, “Up Against The Wall?” for a pointer to some help.
If it’s panic, then take a deep breath. If you’re buying directly from an artist, accept that whatever the artist is charging is a fair price for the creativity, effort, time, and energy spent learning the skills, honing the eye, and making the work. So it’s not really kosher to negotiate, though if you’re buying more than one piece in a single transaction, feel free to ask for a small break on the price of the cheapest one. But don’t be disappointed if the answer is no — artists have to eat, too.
If you’re buying from a gallery, a sizeable chunk of the cost — as much as half — is going to the gallery, with the rest going to the artist. It might be tempting to ask for a price break from the gallery portion of the cost. But gallery owners have to pay rent, heat and light their spaces, and hey — it’s only because of the gallery that you found that artist or piece of art, right? That’s worth something, whether you prefer to recognize it or not. And remember, you’re not buying a piece of art to hang on your wall to remind you what an awesome wheeler-and-dealer you are:
You’re buying it because you like it and have an emotional connection to it. Put a price on that, if you want to try.
Once you’ve settled on a final price, it may still be more than you can afford right at this moment. Relax: Artists and gallery owners know what it’s like to be strapped for cash. Ask to pay in installments — even small ones, like $10 a week or $50 a month. Most of them will be more than happy to make arrangements to connect an eager buyer with a wonderful piece of art. While you shouldn’t expect to get the actual piece in your hands until you’re done paying, ask to take a photo (or several, if different angles matter). Get them printed out and hang them in your home — it’ll be a motivating reminder of what you’re in the process of buying, and you’ll get a little bit of the joy the real piece will bring once it’s finally your own.

Up against the wall?How to display your new treasureA new book co-written by a Portland author will help you make the most of your new piece of art. How to Hang a Picture: And Other Essential Lessons for the Stylish Home (St. Martin’s Griffin, $19.99) is just the sort of really useful, not-too-precious how-to book that can actually help make your home’s decor better even before you open it. A beautiful volume with really fascinating illustrations, How to Hang a Picture could be a coffee-table book as much as a handyman’s manual.
Written by Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator Jay Sacher and Portland-based graphic designer Suzanne LaGasa, it teaches the basics of hanging artwork, and moves beyond into the finer points of selection of framing and matting, lighting placement, and how to deal with various wall types (whether drywall or cement or something else).
With clear statements of principle like “Centering your art at eye level is a key component to a well-planned wall” and elegant images showing what the words mean, you’ll be ready to show off your artwork in the best possible way.
Online galleriesTo get a sense of your tastes and a range of styles, check out this selection of online art galleries.Museum (the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) (the Smithsonian Institution)
Groups of artists who sell direct from