Summary:

The Augusta Chronicle, which bills itself as the South’s oldest newspaper, is erecting a metered paywall around its website next week, makin…

Stack of newspapers
photo: Valerie Everett

The Augusta Chronicle, which bills itself as the South’s oldest newspaper, is erecting a metered paywall around its website next week, making it the latest to go that route. The paywall will kick in once a reader has accessed 100 “premium” articles on the site, says Alan English, the paper’s executive editor. After that, users will have the choice of $6.95 per month for a digital subscription, though current print subs will only have to pay an additional $2.95 for additional web access. The Chonicle is mindful of the crucial traffic boost from social media, so visitors in coming from Facebook or e-mail links won’t counted by the meter.

That should keep ad dollars flowing to the site — which will also soon include an iPad app — but it’s still a gamble. The site claims about 400,000 monthly uniques — which results in 8 million views per month — and roughly 25,000 visitors a day.

Ultimately, it’s a test of the value readers place on access to the newspaper’s content. In his editor’s note, English lists a number of stories that they should expect to pay the equivalent of one cup of coffee for: reporting on infrastructure, local personalities, collegiate sports, and city government.

It’s still early to assess how some of the prominent paywall experiments have fared, with early results from Rupert Murdoch’s deemed lackluster shortly after launching this summer. The conventional wisdom has long held that users would only pay for online access to financial news and sports. With the NYTimes.com’s metered paywall coming in early 2011, the idea will have its fullest test yet.

Updated: In e-mail interview, English told paidContent that the meter was set “high to start slow, minimizing any impact on page views,” and that executives would learn as it gets up and running.

Eventually, he believes the paper’s site will be able to charge higher CPMs because they’ll be able tell advertisers that their readers are clearly engaged, by dint of the fact that they’re paying to access it. “We are hearing (and seeing) how some advertisers are willing to pay a premium to target digital subscribers in projects on the iPad and on the web,” English said. “The big boys will drive this, and those experiences likely will help us build a model for local advertisers who want to target the same. “

As for the timing of the decision to put a meter on the site, English pointed to the advent of new devices, such as the iPad. “It’s just time to fix the mistake of giving everything away for free as we look to charging for access and subscriptions on tablets, apps and in new ways,” he said. “The relationship with a paying subscriber is intimate and meaningful for both sides, supporting the kind of journalism and business that delivers credible messages locally.”

The introduction of the paywall is not primarily meant to drive users back to the print product. “Our content has value in print or digitally,” English said. You pick the format. We do expect some switch behavior in both directions. This is part of an overall strategy that includes the launch of an iPad app, coordinating between the two.”

To make the paid site more attractive to users who are used to getting it all for free, The Chronicle will look to add more premium content. English: “We already offer add-on content far and above. Example: We were able to run about 17 of the 36 stories we produced on area soldiers who died in the Iraq War with maps, albums, videos and additional documentation of their duty. We had a meeting with our photo staff yesterday to set the goals for greater visual experiences inside of the premium stories as people explore. We are ramping up the efforts to package related content the enriches the experience without fear of providing offsite references for one-stop shopping. Our goals include simply upgrading the entire experience to give people a bang for their buck.”

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