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Dropping paywalls the next trend?

Four months ago, the San Francisco Chronicle followed a trend by experimenting with a paywall. Newspapers big and small around the country have done the same, many of them touting some measure of success, such as the New York Times. But the Chronicle also wasn’t afraid to tear it down recently, thus ending the brief experiment with a pay model.

Like the Boston Globe, the Chronicle delved into dual websites, with one site, SFGate.com, remaining free, and the other, SFChronicle.com, going behind a hard wall. According to a statement, both sites will remain up, with SFGate.com remaining as an online version similar to the main newspaper and hosting premium content.

Even the Globe, which sports the dual model, has had some stops and starts, noted Rick Edmonds, a newspaper analyst with the Poynter Institute. “I guess in general, they had a fairly slowly start, and still don’t have a great many subscribers, but it does seem to be progressing,” he said. The Globe and the Dallas Morning News, which also have a dual paywall, were clear from the start that the paid site had to have high quality content, including enterprise reporting readers couldn’t get anywhere else.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that the Dallas Morning News is planning on pulling its paywall down from its regular news site and launching a new premium content site. Is this the end of the paywall? Hardly. Newspapers big and small continue to experiment with paywalls, including the Chicago Tribune, Gannett, which switched 80 of its papers to a paid model, the News & Observer, Anchorage Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, Leader-Telegram, Indianapolis Star, Columbus Dispatch, Maine Times, and the list goes on.

Generally, a paywall has the potential to generate new revenue, attract additional subscribers and gain new advertising dollars, noted Edmonds. “I would say that equation didn’t seem to be working out, and I think it’s a plus if it wasn’t working out and they stopped after four months, at least to pause and reverse course,” he said. So far, it hasn’t been clear what combination of factors were involved, however, in the Chronicle’s decision to shut its paywall down, he noted. But like the New York Times noted when its first paywall, TimesSelect, didn’t work, the paper probably feels it will benefit from the increased traffic by generating free content.

Paywall naysayers like Steve Buttry believe, however, that “the potential revenue paywalls will yield isn’t worth the damage they cause.” Although Edmonds suspects some papers will find paywalls don’t work for them, the New York Times and other papers of various sizes have found success. Meanwhile, the metered model has been the favored pay plan to go with, and hard wall newspapers may just need to change up their model.

“Right now, it’s an interesting development not necessarily applicable to most publications that put in paywalls, and the whole bundled, metered model structure,” he said.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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