The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University is enjoying marginal success with its metered pay wall a bit more than a year after enacting it. At the start of spring semester 2011, the paper became the first U.S. student media outlet to charge a subset of readers for its content online, requiring a $10 yearly subscription fee for individuals outside the campus area who wanted to read more than three articles per month.

In an excellent recent MediaShift piece, Alexa Capeloto provided a progress report on the O’Colly’s efforts, confirming the paper now has 177 paid subscribers. The numbers beat the expectations of the paper’s general manager, even prompting him to already slightly raise the annual subscription fee to $15.

As Capeloto writes, “There wasn’t any national news on the OSU campus that might have lured a burst of new paid subscribers. They came slow and steady, never exceeding three per day. Looking ahead, [the GM] has budgeted $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from online subscribers for the next fiscal year … a mere drop in the outlet’s $700,000 budget, but a drop nonetheless.”

As a huge fan of innovation and experimentation within college media, I enthusiastically applaud the O’Colly for being a pay wall pioneer. But at the moment, I am still against the mass adoption of metered pay walls by student press outlets nationwide.

A Financial Pinch

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The O’Collegian’s pay wall.

The hard truth is that student newspapers are financially struggling at the moment. The decade-long economic plights of the professional press have at last weaved their way into the land of college media. If not quite a time of reckoning, it is definitely a prolonged period of profound change — cutbacks, weary sighs, and hopefully a few spirited reinventions.

Some campus papers have cut the number of days they publish each week. Others have reduced the number of pages they print or their page sizes. Many are pulling back on staff pay and perks like conference travel. A few have appealed directly to students and alumni for funding help. A small amount have launched magazines in hopes of broadening their readership and ad appeal. And a few papers have even gone dark entirely, mostly at smaller schools or community colleges in which related journalism programs have also been shuttered due to state funding cuts.

Students are still reading their campus newspapers in print, by all accounts at a reliable, surprisingly high rate. But advertising is tougher to come by. Related school budgets in some cases are tightening or disappearing entirely. And student governments are getting occasionally restless as they look at papers’ financial bottom lines.

Amid this bleak backdrop — what USA Today describes as a pronounced “financial pinch” — any idea within reason to generate new revenue digitally is being considered.

Pay walls are a bold idea, to be sure, but not yet the right one for most of the student press. They embody what Bryan Murley at the Center for Innovation in College Media calls “the coins-in-the-couch model of making money.” They may help papers scrounge up a few bucks short term, but at what cost?

Pay walls are still part of a closed online culture most netizens are not yet willing to broach. Within college media, they will hurt student learning and employment opportunities. And most student press outlets are simply not ready to provide the content and creativity paying readers will demand.

Student Media’s 1 Percent

The O’Colly is a top-tier publication, boasting daily content online and a huge alumni and supporter base worldwide interested in checking out what’s happening at Oklahoma State. In Occupy Wall Street terms, the O’Colly is among student media’s 1 percent.

By comparison, a large majority of student media appeal to a very small readership. While their content might be appreciated, paying for it will most likely be a deal-breaker for all but a few diehards.

We need to be honest: Most student newspaper websites are nothing more than slightly repackaged versions of their print editions. Many are not updated more than once a week when school is in session and barely at all during summer and winter breaks. They offer few, if any, multimedia extras. And the featured work can be a tad, ahem, inconsistent.

For free, they are fun reads, but most don’t scream worth-a-fee quality. Even with an über-cheap pay wall, it is hard to imagine most papers getting 17 subscribers, let alone 177.

Along with potentially turning away readers without generating much revenue, pay walls at heart also go against the purpose of the student press. For now, campus media are still learning vehicles more than moneymaking ventures. In that spirit, students must be able to share, share, share their work with others, without restriction, enabling them to join a larger conversation and learn firsthand about reporting and interacting with the public beyond the classroom or campus.

They also must be able to promote that work, and themselves. I dislike imagining a pay-walled dystopian future in which students must add an addendum to all articles placed on their online portfolios or within all messages sent to prospective employers. (“You can look at the first three pieces for free, but then you have to pay or I can send you a one-time special access code or here it is simply in the text of the email …”).

A Pay wall Brick Wall

Separately, what about when big news breaks — a school shooting, out-of-control protests, a natural disaster, a visit by a head of state, an annual campus-wide event — and media and a mass audience are seeking constant updates that only a student outlet can provide?

Three recent examples: The Corsair’s comprehensive coverage of the tuition fight at Santa Monica College; The Daily Tar Heel’s documenting of every detail of President Obama’s campus visit; and The Daily Iowan’s nonstop reporting on a charity Dance Marathon super-popular among University of Iowa students.

In these cases and others like them, student news teams post 10 times the amount of free articles allowed by the O’Colly pay wall — in a single day or weekend. Should these celebrations of quality student press work be available only via surcharge for all off-campus readers, including alums, national news media looking to link, and the friends, family, significant others, and potential employers of the student staff creating them?

I recall months back when the O’Colly endured a mini-scandal surrounding its coverage of a local strip club opening. The situation was mentioned on a popular college media advisers’ list-serv. A number of advisers wanted to read the related news reports, op-eds, and letters to the editor posted on the paper’s website, but of course quickly ran into the pay wall brick wall.

There are of course loopholes galore within current pay wall schemes allowing the right people to see the right features without charge at the right time. (Press+, which provides the O’Colly’s pay wall service, allows papers to exempt selected coverage from the metered system, for instance.)

But the idea of content only being free under special circumstances and through different access points versus being accessible by default seems backward at the student level.

The Rabbit Hole

In this respect, lastly, there is the “down the rabbit hole” argument. I actually think the worst thing that can happen for the student press is not for pay walls to fail, but for them to be marginally successful. Why? Because that will trigger even greater, more complicated reader restrictions.

In just the past year, the O’Colly has raised its annual subscription fee — and it doesn’t even have 200 subscribers. Yet, it’s a typical move. For example, The New York Times recently reduced its monthly free article count by half, right around the one-year anniversary of its pay wall. It appears the realization that a niche effort like this can generate even a little bit of money triggers a desire to squeeze even more dollars out of it.

So do I think the O’Colly’s minimally priced, fairly limited pay wall restriction is troublesome on its own? No, not really. What worries me is the precedent it sets, because the trend will surely be higher prices and ever-fewer free reads.

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in early 2013 by Routledge.