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A year of paywalls

Several years ago the paywall debate was in full swing. While naysayers argued that paywalls wouldn’t work, newspapers across the country started experimenting.

Today, experimenting with a paywall has become something of a trend, especially in regional papers. Through trial and error, different paid-for models have been tried. And while some have failed, others are seemingly doing well.

In June, Barron’s reported that the New York Times’ paywall had turned out a mild success with an estimated 350,000 paying subscribers. In Georgia, the Augusta Chronicle has actually seen an increase in website page views since it instituted a paywall in December, reported NetNewsCheck. Meanwhile, the mere fact that the trend continues elsewhere indicates that early experimenters are getting a relatively positive response.

In the last few months alone, MediaNews Group rolled out paywalls for all its small to mid-sized papers, after having already experimented with a paid model at the York Daily News and Chico Enterprise-News. In total, roughly 26 papers will be raising a metered wall. Meanwhile, the E.W. Scripps Co. announced that the Commercial Appeal would be going to a paid model, and Lee Enterprises is putting papers from their Rocky Mountain West group behind a metered wall. The Modesto Bee launched a paywall in June; North Texas’ Times Record News launched one in August; and Chicago’s Daily Herald put one in place earlier this month. According to Paid Content, the Southeast Missourian and Richmond Times-Dispatch both launched paywalls as well, but partnered up with Google One Pass. This means that articles accessed via links don’t get counted toward the number of free articles nonsubscribers can read before a wall goes up. While the Missourian’s model is your basic metered model, the Times-Dispatch is only wrapping content on Civil War coverage behind a paywall for the time being.

The Boston Globe launched an interesting paywall model, dividing its online component into two parts: Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com. BostonGlobe.com features the newspaper’s print stories, exclusive reports, in-depth analysis and commentary, which can be read online and on multiple mobile devices for a fee of $3.99 a week. Meanwhile, Boston.com remains free, offering breaking news, blogs, photo galleries, sports coverage, and some stories from the paper. Also joining the list of daily metros instituting a paywall is the Baltimore Sun, which is launching a metered model on Oct. 10.

The trend toward paywalls is partly because platforms exist now that make it easy for papers to experiment, noted Steve Outing, a media analyst and program director of the Digital Test Kitchen at the University of Boulder. But paywall experiments have been going on since news organizations got involved with the Web, he said. Generally, they failed, with the exception of niche sites and various news organizations. And while the Times may be saying their paywall is a success, Outing suggested that it’s just too early to tell if this is true.

There are many different models of paywalls. Often, a newspaper puts up a paywall that gives subscribers to the print edition the digital edition free. “That works out to be less money than if you just wanted a digital subscription,” said Outing. “In a lot of ways, it’s still a strategy of trying to protect their print product, and you’re seeing this in a number of places.” This strategy makes sense since the majority of revenue still comes from print advertising, he noted. But transitioning to digital and getting revenues up that way makes more sense. “In the long term it ends up hurting the companies in terms of being able to make the transition,” he said.

While the New York Times, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Baltimore Sun, along with the many regional papers across the country adopt paywalls, Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli announced at the Asian American Journalists Association Convention in August that the Post would not be going behind a paywall, reported Romenesko. “We are quite content being the largest premium free newspaper online,” he reportedly said.

Although the trend seems to be toward a paid model, Outing said that the Post’s decision to stay free could potentially be a lucrative decision for them given competitors like Politico. Because it’s based in D.C., the paper is very dominant in political coverage. “If the Washington Post was to put up a paywall and you have a competitor like that, it could really hurt,” he said. “So I think it makes sense.” But it all varies from market to market. For instance, a paper based in an area without competition is under no pressure to provide a free site. “A lot of times it’s in the metro markets that it’s a dangerous policy, and as we know Internet users are pretty fickle, one click and they’re off somewhere else,” he said.

At the university, Outing is working with a graduate student who is primarily looking at the idea of using a membership model for news. According to Paid Content, Connecticut’s The Day had a similar idea and is launching a membership program with prices depending on a reader’s level of membership. But there are many ways to experiment with membership, including just charging for the iPad app, or charging for personalized news on mobile devices, noted Outing.

The term “paywall” might be an issue in itself, said Outing. For the consumer, “paywall” can have negative connotations. “Premium membership” is much more positive, he noted. Looking forward, Outing believes news organizations will be keeping to the status quo by doing what they’re doing right now: experimenting.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

 

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