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Digital First Media joins WaPo in adopting paywalls despite initial reluctance

Even the staunchest opponents of paywalls have given into the trend and erected subscription models as another year gets deemed the “year of the paywall.” First, there was the Washington Post which claimed it would never go behind a paywall. But in June, it did. Then, earlier this week, Digital First Media (DFM) CEO John Paton announced the companies’ papers would also be going behind paywalls.

Paton has frequently referred to paywalls as a “stack of pennies,” and noted in the past that he would only consider an “all access” subscription plan, which packages print and digital together. But even then, he doesn’t view subscription models as a long-term plan, which he made clear at the Global Editors Network in Paris this past June: “All Access is nothing like a solution for our industry but it could buy some gas in the tank to get down the road. It is currently the rage in our industry because it doesn’t require you to think too much about the digital future you have to build – just what you might be able to charge your print customers today for it.”

Despite his philosophy on paywalls, a sampling of papers were put behind subscription models earlier this year. Although traffic initially fell, it eventually grew back but failed to produce any significant revenue, Paton noted on his blog. With the new “all access” strategy being unrolled to all 75 dailies, the papers will provide more offerings to readers,  he wrote. For example, websites were recently upgraded, and new apps for tablets and smartphones were recently released.

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at DFM, has been vocal about his opposition to paywalls in the past. In response to the announcement, he reiterated his skepticism for a paywall’s effectiveness, but noted he has confidence in Paton’s overall strategy.

Many of the arguments Paton has had against paywalls included the idea that it’s only a short-term solution and will shrink audiences and hinder innovation. His choice to go with an “all access” paywall is obviously reluctant:  “Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic. I have said that often enough in the past,” he wrote on his blog. “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”

The Pioneer Press will be the first to transition this week, while rest of the 75 dailies will go to the new model in January.


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