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The metered approach

The metered approach

November 17: Readers visiting newspaper websites are increasingly being met by a subscription wall when clicking on article links, making the reading experience a bit pricier. Although the paywall concept was initially met with skepticism by critics, some newspapers embracing the metered price tag on Web content are finding that it works.

One such newspaper is the Lancaster New Era and Intelligencer Journal, which opted to close only a small portion of its website off to readers this past July. Although community members may currently access the site for free, out-of-towners will find that when it comes to obituaries, they may have to pay a small fee if they read more than eight a month.

“The thinking behind it is that we wanted to try a metered paywall with a small piece of our content so if it was a disaster we wouldn’t be losing large amounts of readership,” said Ernie Schreiber, online editor for the paper. About six percent of the paper’s readers are obituary readers, half of which would be qualified as out-of-towners. “So losing 3 percent didn’t seem too terrible,” he said. “It was really discreet content that no one else has.” So far, the number of subscriptions bought is on target with their lowest estimate, he noted.

In Massachusetts, the News Corporation-owned Cape Cod Times erected a paywall earlier this month with three levels of access. New or occasional visitors will find they can read up to three articles a month free of charge, while more frequent visitors will find that they merely have to fill out a registration form to read up to 10 free articles a month. Beyond that, readers are required to subscribe and pay a fee that includes access to articles online as well as the digital edition. Although it is likely they will lose some readers with the paywall, in the end it is expected to pay off. “Quality journalism can only occur if it has a revenue stream attached,” Cape Cod Media Group president Peter Meyer told the Cape Cod Times.

News Corporation recently released their first numbers for the UK-based Times of London and Sunday Times, which put up paywalls in July. According to Business Insider, 105,000 readers have signed up for access since they went to a subscription model, with 50,000 being digital-only subscribers. Although it is too early to tell whether they have really lost or gained, Nielsen noted that readers going behind the paywall are considered more valuable and more “engaged,” averaging more pages per person a month. “However, not only do those who sign up online generate extra subscription revenue, the entire registered paywall group are of particular value, as they offer a richer sales proposition through a combination of providing more details about themselves, being more engaged with the site and being more socially affluent than the previous audience,” wrote Matthew Dodd, senior vice president of research and analytics at Nielsen Online.

The New York Times’ scheduled venture into a paid model is just around the corner. In January, the paper is slated to erect a metered model. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe is scheduled to launch a subscriber-based website later in 2011, while the original Boston.com will remain free. Other papers that have introduced pay models include Gannett’s Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, The Spectrum in Utah and The Greenville News in South Carolina. The Times-owned Worcester Telegram & Gazette also went behind a paywall, and recently told All Things Digital that the paywall hadn’t impacted traffic negatively at all.

MediaNews Group joined the paywall club when it erected a metered model around the Chico Enterprise Record and York Daily Record this past July. At the time, then-vice president of content development Howard Saltz told inVocus that he believed the site wouldn’t lose any traffic. A follow-up with MediaNews Group didn’t yield any new insights. “The paywall tests are still early in their development. We’re not ready for any updates at this time,” said Sara Glines, vice president of field operations, in an e-mail response.

The two MediaNews Group papers originally planned to put content behind the paywall that was unique to the paper – a theory that Schreiber believes is a misconception. “The reader has to define what unique content is. For some people, the obituaries and the community news is what’s really important to read on the site, for others it will be sports, and for others it will be crime and weather,” he said. Readers are ultimately getting charged for the frequency of their readership and the value of content. That’s why when the Lancaster New Era and Intelligencer Journal eventually erects a full paywall, it will be around all its content, but with a metered approach. This is the key to success, Schreiber noted. “The benefit is that you can charge heavy users of your site without disrupting the advertising revenue that you get from the occasional user. There is no decline in page views. Your metrics still look good even though you have the wall there,” he said. “All the readership that we get through search, social media – we get to hang on to that.”

Although there may be some complaints from readers, he ultimately believes the benefits outweigh the cost. “When I think of negatives, I think of people complaining, wanting free news versus the pain of laying off journalists. Our newsroom, like every other newsroom in the country, took substantial losses. For me to weigh that against what they contributed to democracy against somebody complaining because they want their news for free, it’s not much of a negative,” he said. Like a mantra, he believes content does not want to be free, it wants to be paid.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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