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Newspaper paywalls on the rise

Print papers are being forced to find new and innovative ways to bring in revenue as the industry continues to transform. When the push for digital came to the forefront, so did paywalls. They were erected slowly at first, and with much controversy, but then the trend started to get hot.

Today, approximately 16 percent of daily newspapers charge for online access, reported Poynter. This represents about one third of daily papers.

The Chico Enterprise Record is a daily newspaper in California with a circulation of approximately 27,000. Owned by MediaNews Group, the Record launched its paywall in July 2010 as an experiment. In 2011, the publishing group expanded paywalls to include all dailies with a circulation of 20,000 or under.

Although some may argue against pay-per-view news sites, Chico Enterprise Record editor David Little has noticed an increase in page views for the paywall-blocked website. The way it works is readers can view up to five pages for free in a 30-day time period. On the sixth story, they are asked to subscribe for additional content. “Some readers think everything on the Internet should be free and we get the occasional protest email saying something to the effect of ‘I’ll never come to your website again,’” Little said in an email interview.  “However, our page views are increasing year over year, so obviously there’s some acceptance out there as well.”

Last year a slew of newspapers joined the paywall revolution, including Lee Enterprise’s Rocky Mountain West Group, the Commercial Appeal and Richmond Times-Dispatch. But 2012 has also seen its share of newspapers going to a paid model. As recently as June, Gannett announced the Post-Crescent, Fond du Lac Reporter, the Press-Gazette and several other state publications would join in the move towards subscription based online media.

In January, the Times Record, a smaller paper in Maine with a circulation of approximately 8,000, also implemented a paid system. Managing editor Robert Long’s role, in terms of the paywall, was to adapt the paper and digital edition to compliment the fee-based model. Free access to the Times Record’s website is limited to specific stories and certain items such as calendar listings. For an online-only subscription, readers will be out of pocket $89.99 per year. But the paper’s paywall has been met with little opposition. “We work and live in a community reeling from the loss of 5,000 jobs associated with a naval air station’s closure,” Long said in an email interview. “So people recognize the need to pull together and support local institutions, including the community newspaper.”

As for the future of paywalls, who can say where newspapers will go? Will readers accept paid models willingly or will they fight for free content? The evidence suggests the paywall is not going away. “Unless media organizations can come up with a way to underwrite journalism through online advertising or other revenue sources, I believe it’s inevitable that some form of pay-for-content system will take hold,” Long said.

In a world where the digital media is stepping forward as a leader, the days of free content may be coming to an end.

–Kimberly Cooper

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